By Chris Harris
This has been an historic year for Arsenal but it ended with a whimper instead of a bang at Bramall Lane.
Christian Nade's goal five minutes before the break was enough to record a famous victory for Sheffield United, end Arsenal's seven-match unbeaten run and leave Arsène Wenger's team in fifth place in the Premiership.
Gilberto went closest for Arsenal in a frantic opening spell but, after a promising start, the visitors' passing floundered on a poor playing surface. When they did carve out an opening the door was slammed shut by United's outstanding defence - and two different goalkeepers.
Paddy Kenny thwarted Tomas Rosicky and Jeremie Aliadiere before the break and, when he had limped off after an hour with a groin injury, centre-back Phil Jagielka showed impeccable handling and smart reflexes to deny Robin van Persie.
It was a great day for the red and white half of Sheffield but not for the red and white stronghold of London. The year 2006 will be remembered for a farewell to Highbury, a new era at Emirates Stadium and that trip to Paris; this game can be filed under 'forgettable'.
At least Arsenal have a chance to bounce back quickly when a rejuventated Charlton side visit the Emirates on Tuesday night.
Not everyone gets what they want for Christmas but Wenger will have been perfectly happy with maximum points from his side's first two festive games. That said, he could have done without the injury crisis which deprived him of nine first-team players for this trip north.
The Frenchman already had to cope without Thierry Henry (hamstring), Freddie Ljungberg (hamstring), William Gallas (thigh), Emmanuel Eboue (ankle) and Abou Diaby (ankle). Then Emmanuel Adebayor (thigh), Johan Djourou (hamstring), Theo Walcott (back) and Alex Hleb (shin) joined them on the sidelines. With Cesc Fabregas, Jeremie Aliadiere, Alex Song and Julio Baptista suffering from colds, Arsenal's resources were severely stretched for their third game in seven days.
Into the starting line-up stepped Philippe Senderos, Mathieu Flamini, Julio Baptista and Jeremie Aliadiere, while long-term absentee Lauren and Fabregas were among the substitutes. Wenger had no option but to shuffle his pack but that hardly seemed to matter in the early stages. Victories for Bolton and Liverpool earlier in the day had left Arsenal needing three points to end the year in third place. A flurry of early chances suggested they would get what they required.
With just three minutes on the clock a mix-up in the United defence gave Tomas Rosicky the chance to find Robin van Persie. The Czech did so - with the aid of a deflection - but Van Persie's control let him down and Nick Montgomery raced back to cover.
Seconds later Rosicky, operating on the right while Baptista patrolled the left flank, burst through a gap and curled an effort towards the far post with the outside of his right foot. Kenny pawed the ball away. Then Aliadiere broke clear down the right after a good interchange between Rosicky and Flamini. The French striker's low cross reached Baptista, unmarked just inside the box, but as the Brazilian swung his boot he was clattered by a hard but fair challenge.
Arsenal weren't finished and only seven minutes had elapsed when Gilberto met Van Persie's corner with a towering far-post header. On current form you would have backed the stand-in skipper to score for the fourth successive game but his effort bounced into the ground and over the bar.
No matter. Arsenal looked to have the measure of their hosts and, while the pitch was hardly conducive to their passing game, they looked capable of carving out chance after chance. Not quite. United, having been let off the hook, started to cause problems.
Rob Kozluk's low drive was almost touched in by Nade, Alan Quinn failed to test Jens Lehmann when well-placed 12 yards out and Colin Kazim-Richards should also have improved on a weak effort after finding space inside the penalty area.
Arsenal stemmed the flow of United pressure with a slick counter-attack just after the half-hour. Aliadiere sprinted onto Rosicky's astute through ball but his left-foot shot was just too close to Kenny. It was a promising sign for the visitors but, just when Arsenal looked like regaining the upper hand, United scored.
Ironically, the visitors were undone by a tactic they use so well themselves - the counter-attack. A promising Arsenal move broke down on the edge of the United box when Rosicky misplaced his return pass to Baptista and, seconds later, they paid the ultimate price. Claude Davis picked out Alan Quinn and he knocked the ball forward for Nade. Kolo Toure committed himself, Nade span his marker and held off Toure before clipping a low shot past Lehmann. Cue pandemonium at Bramall Lane.
The odds looked against Arsenal with a poor pitch to overcome and a depleted line-up on show. Toure tried to take matters into his own hands early in the second half with one of his trademark surges from deep. He beat two men and found Van Persie, but Davis frustrated the Dutchman once more with a perfectly-timed challenge.
Kenny injured himself on the hour mark while taking a goal-kick and Jagielka, a more than capable reserve, vacated his centre-back position and donned the gloves. United have only lost once when Jagielka has kept goal but, nonetheless, Arsenal had 30 minutes to throw everything they could at the stand-in.
On came Fabregas to try and bring cohesion to a disjointed Arsenal display. Within minutes he was booked for a foul on Quinn - a caution which will keep him out of the FA Cup tie at Liverpool next Saturday. The Spaniard, laid low during the week, could not exert his usual authority on the contest.
Arsenal persevered in their search of an equaliser but United's defence, led by the outstanding Davis and captain Chris Morgan, kept them at bay. And when United's back line was breached, Jagielka produced a brilliant tip-over to deny Van Persie. Flamini nodded high and wide from a good position and Fabregas fired over the bar in stoppage time. It was all Arsenal could muster.
Referee: Alan Wiley
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