By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Danny Welbeck struck the winning goal nine minutes from time to tip this evenly-balanced game in favour of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
The visitors deserved the lead given to them on the stroke of half time when Antonio Valencia headed home Ryan Giggs’ cross at the far post. However, Arsenal were rejuvenated after the restart and equalised in the 71st minute when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain set up Robin van Persie to fire home his 23rd goal of campaign.
Both sides were looking for the winner in the dying stages – Arsenal to close the gap on the top four, Manchester United to keep pace with leaders Manchester City.
Unfortunately the visitors found it. However, Wenger’s men showed enough fighting spirit to suggest their battle for Champions League football is far from over.
The two sets of supporters at Emirates Stadium had ample pre-match entertainment this afternoon. Their local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, were battling it out up the North West of England.
Mario Balotelli’s late winner had a major impact on both clubs this afternoon – and not just because of local concerns.
Wenger made three changes from the side beaten at Swansea. Fit-again Thomas Vermaelen replaced Ignasi Miquel at left back, Tomas Rosicky came in for Yossi Benayoun and Oxlade-Chamberlain was favoured over Andrey Arshavin.
It was the youngster who caught the eye in the opening stages of his first Premier League start. He raced down the left in the second minute but his dangerous cutback evaded Van Persie.
It was the shape of things to come in the first 15 minutes. Arsenal had the better of the early exchanges. They snapped at the heels of the visitors and, although the final ball was sometimes misplaced, they continued to ask all the questions.
Manchester United’s cohesion was not helped by the loss of Phil Jones after he fell awkwardly when trying to take on Walcott.
However, as we reached the half-way point of the first period, Manchester United were starting to create their fair-share of pressure.
Nani whipped in a cross from the left which was nodded away from the waiting Giggs by Per Mertesacker at the back post. Eventually the ball did find its way to the Welshman and his low, angled shot was saved by Wojciech Szczesny.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was still Arsenal’s brightest hope and, in the 25th minute, he bamboozled Patrice Evra on the byline before Walcott fired over.
The game was opening up now. Arsenal were pressing more and Manchester United were attempting to catch them on the break. But for excellent backtracking by Laurent Koscielny, the galloping Welbeck might have done that just before the half hour.
A few minutes later, Nani tried to find the same striker but Mertesacker intervened.
As the game wore on, Manchester United were squeezing Arsenal but they were yet to force Szczesny into a significant save. That changed 10 minutes from the whistle when Evra cut the ball back to Nani. His first-time shot was superbly stopped by Szczesny low at his near post.
Walcott and Ramsey then combined on the right but the latter’s cross could not find the head of Van Persie at the near post.
Seconds later, Nani got beyond Djourou and, rather optimistically, tried to find the far corner from an acute angle.
Most of the visiting threat had come down the left so it was no surprise that Manchester United’s goal emanated from there. However, it came just as both sides were starting to wind down into half time.
Vermaelen’s clearance went straight to the visitors and Giggs curled a clever cross to the far post where Valencia ghosted in to guide home a header.
It was blow for the home side who had withstood significant pressure and must have thought they would reach the break on level terms.
However, Manchester United would hand them a golden chance for an equaliser within minutes of the restart. Chris Smalling slipped just inside his own half to give Rosicky a clear run at goal. The Czech midfielder reached the edge of the area before finding Van Persie. He weaved himself into position but fired wide of the post. A massive moment.
Wenger had replaced Johan Djourou with Nico Yennaris at the break. The right back, who had been a team mascot in 2000, came on to make his Premier League debut.
However, in Nani, the 18-year-old was facing one of the most potent attacking threats on the pitch. A couple of minutes later, one of his clever cutbacks was hurriedly cleared by the head of Koscielny.
Still, overall, that early opportunity seemed to have enlivened Arsenal. Oxlade-Chamberlain fed Ramsey to fire just over the bar then Van Persie set up Rosicky to crack an effort goalwards. Evra blocked the drive. Arsenal claimed he had done so with his hand.
Just past the hour, Koscielny stormed forward and Oxlade-Chamberlain scuttled a shot inches wide of the post.
The game was wide open once more. Midway through the half, Welbeck outpaced Mertesacker and clipped the ball past the onrushing Szczesny. However, the German defender slid in to hook the ball off the line.
Then the keeper made a sprawling save to push Welbeck wide and Song booted the ball away from under his own bar.
This game was becoming wonderful entertainment, full of pace and passion. Manchester United were pressing and Arsenal were looking to counter.
They did so successfully in the 71st minute.
Oxlade-Chamberlain stormed forward and clipped a pass inside to Van Persie. The Dutchman’s shot went through the legs of his marker and tickled the fingertips of Anders Lindegaard before finding the far corner.
Van Persie celebrated by showing a t-shirt bearing a 91st birthday message for his grandfather.
Arsenal went on search for an immediate second and only a brave gather by Lindegaard stopped Walcott finding one 13 minutes from the end.
However, nine minute from time, Manchester United stole a second. Valencia burst in from the right, drew in the Arsenal defence and dinked the ball back for Welbeck. The striker sidefooted home.
In the dying stages, Arsenal threw Mertesacker forward. Lindegaard tipped away a dangerous cross from Walcott before the German defender saw his header chested off the line by Jonny Evans.
But in the end they just could not find an equaliser.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Djourou 46
- Song Yellow Card
- Rosicky Yellow Card
- Ramsey 84 Yellow Card
- Persie (C) Goal! Yellow Card
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 73
- Yennaris 46
- Arshavin 73
- Park 84
- Evra (C) Yellow Card
- Jones 17
- Valencia Goal!
- Nani 75
- Welbeck Goal!
- Silva 76 17
- Park 76
- Scholes 75