By Richard Clarke
Arsenal were knocked off the top of the Premier League table after a narrow 1-0 defeat at Manchester United on Monday night.
The goal had more than a touch of good fortune about it. Nani’s cross deflected on to the head of Ji-Sung Park four minutes before half-time, though the Korean’s reaction was razor-sharp.
Manchester United also missed a second-half penalty when Wayne Rooney blazed over the bar.
Those were the major moments of the game. In between them, there was little to split the sides. Arsenal’s performance was combative and controlled. Though we have said it before, on another night they might have gleaned something from the game.
Yes rookie keeper Wojciech Szczesny made more saves than Edwin van der Sar but this is Old Trafford and the volume of the travelling Arsenal fans at full time suggested they still had pride in their side after this evening.
A fifth defeat of the season is a big blow to Arsenal’s title hopes but this performance means they can still claim that very quality - hope – for the remainder of the campaign.
The stand-out team news was the selection of Szczesny in goal. Lukasz Fabianski had damaged his hip in the final seconds of the win over Partizan Belgrade last Wednesday and so his compatriot took the gloves for the first time in a Premier League game.
Cesc Fabregas had been out with a hamstring problem since the 2-0 defeat in Braga last month. He was a significant doubt in the days before this game and began on the bench.
Otherwise Wenger shuffled his squad as he has done throughout the past month.
This game was an opportunity for Arsenal. They came to Old Trafford as the Premier League leaders but had yet to attain the kudos of a side with true title aspirations. That would change with a win this evening.
In the first half, they would never really find a fluency and would lose a goal but they were always competitive.
In the eighth minute, Van der Sar’s quick clearance found Rooney. The England striker turned sharply and his deflected shot was clutched by Szczesny with Park in close attendance.
The play was pretty even but the chances – such as they were - went to the home side.
Midway though the half, Darren Fletcher’s cross was aimed towards Rooney but Sebastien Squillaci intervened. The Frenchman’s header was weak and found Nani on the right of the area. His volley flew inches past the far post. It was by far the clearest chance of a tense opening quarter.
Just before the half-hour, Manchester United had a major shout for a penalty. Nani swung a cross over from the left and, as Marouane Chamakh stooped to nod the ball clear, it only brushed his head but hit his hand. Referee Howard Webb waved play on. Just as he had when Rafael blocked off Chamakh in the area earlier on.
Arsenal were holding their own but had not created a chance worthy of the name. Yet Manchester United were hardly carving the visitors apart.
In fact when they took the lead four minutes before the break, it required a healthy portion of luck.
Nani drove in-field with Clichy in close attendance and tried to cross the ball. His effort deflected off the Frenchman but Park reacted quickly and guided a header over Szczesny. It dropped agonisingly beyond the Arsenal keeper and into the net.
In a tight, fiercely-contested game, it was a huge moment. Arsenal went into the break feeling slightly aggrieved.
Tomas Rosicky thumped a cross-shot just wide in the opening moments of the second half. And, after Alex Song had nodded Rooney’s ball across his own goal and over the bar, Samir Nasri fired across goal only for Van der Sar to save at the near post.
Arsenal had upped the ante but Manchester United had been breaking quickly all night with long balls over the top. With the visitors chasing the game, this played into their hands.
In the 54th minute, Rooney fed Anderson and the Brazilian’s toe-poke was wonderfully batted away by Szczesny. His best save of the night so far.
A couple of minutes later Van der Sar made his first real stop. Nasri’s low cross-shot was turned into the path of Chamakh by the Dutchman. For a second the Moroccan had the goal at his mercy but Nemanja Vidic slid in to block as the Arsenal striker prodded a shot towards goal.
Wenger brought on Fabregas and Robin van Persie for Jack Wilshere and Rosicky. The away side were now pushing down the pedal but, when the Dutchman just failed to scramble home Sagna’s cross, you sensed it was not to be Arsenal’s night.
Anderson fired just wide with the right back lying prostrate after a high challenge from Rio Ferdinand.
Then, in the 72nd minute, Manchester United should have killed the game. On the right of the area, Nani tussled with the sliding Clichy. The Portuguese winger dragged the ball back on to the hand the Frenchman was leaning on and the assistant referee indicated a spot-kick. It was the fifth penalty awarded against Arsenal in their last eight trips to Old Trafford.
Often they are decisive but this one was missed. Inexplicably, Rooney thundered his effort high over the bar from 12 yards.
It was the impetus Arsenal needed and Wenger added pace to his side by replacing Andrey Arshavin with Theo Walcott.
But, as the seconds ticked by, Manchester United were defending deep and making the better chances on the break.
From one, in the 88th minute, Rooney tried to chip Szczesny. The Pole stretched his huge frame and batted the ball aside.
In final seconds of normal time, Walcott’s drifting cross was headed away from Van Persie by Ferdinand at the far post.
Manchester United were now closing the shutters and Arsenal could not prise them open.
There was one final half-chance when Chamakh nodded on and Walcott blazed over the bar.
But, despite a half-decent performance, this was just not Arsenal’s night.
Referee: Howard Webb
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