While the predicament and the players may change, Arsenal v Manchester United will always stir the blood. This was the last visit the Old Trafford side will ever make to Highbury. There was no Patrick Vieira, no Roy Keane, no billing as a title-decider and, as it turned out, no goals. Yet it was still a passionate affair with chances galore. The home side had comfortable control in the first half but you felt they had to make more of their advantage. In the end, the visitors levelled the balance of play as the game exploded into life after the hour. Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had forced a brilliant save from Jens Lehmann just before the break, spurned a couple of clear openings. Arsenal responded with Gilberto and Thierry Henry going close while Francesc Fabregas had claims for a penalty when he was tackled by Gary Neville. But, by the end, this was "honours even" in every way. Yet both sides will wonder about what might have been had they shown a more lethal touch in front of goal.
Before kick-off, Arsène Wenger made three changes from the one that had taken a point from Villa Park on New Year's Eve. Freddie Ljungberg (virus) and Robin van Persie (knee) were enforced absentees so Robert Pires and Jose Antonio Reyes stepped up having started on the bench in the Midlands. Gilberto was fit-again after missing the Villa Park game with a groin injury. Mathieu Flamini made way. The home side were lively the opening stages. Alexander Hleb miskicked Pires' cross when well-placed and Fabregas thumped just wide. Arsenal went even closer in the 19th minute when Fabregas set up Pires on the right. The French midfielder stung the hands of Edwin van der Sar who saved low at the near post. Clear chances were relatively scarce but the home side continued to look the more likely scorers. They ran the channels with inventiveness and were tidy in midfield. But they nearly broke the deadlock via more direct route in the 32nd minute when Henry sent a curling, 25-yard free-kick inches wide of Van der Sar's left-hand post. Up to this point, Manchester United had not really been in the game but no-one was assuming it would stay that way for too long. It did not. Two minutes from the break, Van Nistelrooy let fly from just outside the area and Lehmann flung himself to his right to palm the ball aside. It fell to Cristiano Ronaldo who was under pressure from Lauren. The Portuguese winger put the rebound over when he should have at least hit the target if not scored. The first half pattern was replicated in the early stages after the interval. Arsenal took their game to their opponents, Manchester United looked to hit on the break. One such foray led to opening chance of the half in the 55th minute. Ryan Giggs dinked over a cross from the left and Wayne Rooney floated a header back across goal from the far post. It caused Lehmann a heart flutter or two before drifting wide. The German was similarly concerned a couple of minutes later when Ronaldo's deep, hanging cross found Giggs at the far corner. Fortunately for Arsenal he slashed his effort horribly wide. The home side responded in the best possible way. Henry's free-kick was flicked on by Pascal Cygan and Gilberto swivelled on the edge of the six yard box before getting off a goal-bound shot. It was blocked at point-blank range. Suddenly the chances were flowing - but more were flowing Manchester United's way. Toure miskicked a free-kick into the path of Van Nistelrooy but his thunderous drive only found the sidenetting. On the hour, Ronaldo skipped past Cygan on the left and his low cross was snaffled behind for a corner with Rooney in close attendance. Arsenal had to up their game again. In the 66th minute Henry's cute, angled ball was nearly turned past Van der Sar by Pires. A minute later Fabregas claimed a penalty after Neville's tackle in the area. Referee Graham Poll waved play on and Henry nearly scored from the ensuing scramble. The game was now wide open with a clear scoring chances seeming to arrive every other minute. In the 71st, only a combination of Hleb and Lehmann prevented Van Nistelrooy scoring at the far post. It was the Belarus international's last meaningful action, he was replaced by Dennis Bergkamp soon afterwards. But the fire could not be sustained. As the seconds ticked away the draw seemed more and more inevitable. Neville nearly turned that on its head four minutes from time when, from Rooney's perceptive long-range pass, the full back arrived on the right of the area and slid a shot into the sidenetting. Then when the assistant referee had just put up his board for added time, Wes Brown met a corner from the right with firm downward header and Emmanuel Eboue cleared off the line with his first real touch after replacing Reyes.
So, Arsenal complete their festive programme with a record of two wins and two draws. They did not concede a goal throughout the four games. In fact the last player to score a goal against them was Doncaster's Paul Green.
Since then 376 minutes of football have gone by.
Referee: Graham Poll
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