By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal ripped open the Premier League title race once more with a thoroughly-deserved 1-0 win over Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
In all probability, Aaron Ramsey’s second-half strike will benefit Chelsea more than his own side but, after an indifferent spell all but ended their own aspirations of finishing on top, this was a hugely welcome win.
Arsenal bossed the first half and appeared to be denied a clear penalty when Nemanja Vidic handled a cross from Theo Walcott with Robin van Persie breathing down his neck.
Ramsey’s strike arrived when the visitors were finally finding a toe-hold in the game and Manchester United piled on their pressure in the closing stages. But, this afternoon, Arsenal were in determined mood.
In his pre-match interview, Wenger had suggested his side would have a “little sniff” in the title race should they win this afternoon. They are now six points off top spot and need Manchester United, plus Chelsea for that matter, to stumble a couple more times.
But today proved that, despite recent travails, they belong up there with the best of them.
There was a surprise before kick-off when Cesc Fabregas was ruled out with a thigh injury. The Spaniard was replaced Ramsey, who was making only his second start since breaking his leg in February last year.
Otherwise Arsenal were unchanged from the side that had lost late at Bolton a week earlier.
Since then Manchester United had placed one foot in the Champions League Final meanwhile Chelsea had sustained a modicum of pressure in the title race.
The Stamford Bridge side are due at Old Trafford soon. It meant an Arsenal win this afternoon would be cheered as much in west London as it would in the north of the capital. And the home side did their best to deliver that in the first half.
In the fourth minute, Walcott’s cross ping-ponged around the area for a second before falling to Vidic. His clearance was weak and only found Jack Wilshere on the edge of the area. The Arsenal midfielder hurried his shot and a glorious chance went wide. It was a major miss but, in the opening stages, the general trend was always towards the Manchester United goal.
In the seventh minute, Gael Clichy’s probing cross was touched over by the sliding Walcott. On the quarter-hour, Arsenal nearly scored from a copy-cat effort. Wilshere darted down the left-hand channel and his questioning ball across the face of goal was turned aside by Patrice Evra with Walcott lurking at the back post.
Arsenal were dominating and Manchester United were on their heels. However, given the form of the visitors, it was unlikely to stay that way.
In the 20th minute, the away side threatened when Fabio skipped past Clichy to reach the byline. However the Brazilian dallied over his decision. When he finally plumped for a near-post cut-back, Sagna intervened.
Just past the half-hour, there was a major moment. Walcott sprinted down the right and crossed towards the head of Van Persie at the near post with Vidic in close attendance.
At first glance, it appeared the Serbian had nodded the ball away from the Arsenal striker but the Dutchman’s frenzied reaction towards the assistant referee suggested skullduggery.
Replays confirmed Vidic had used his hand. Manchester United had taken a couple of pot-shots from distance through Wayne Rooney and Anderson but, when the half-time whistle blew, the visitors had the greater concern about the events of the previous 45 minutes.
At the break, Arsenal lost Samir Nasri to a tight hamstring. He was replaced by Andrey Arshavin.
Rooney’s early free-kick suggested Ferguson’s side would have a different attitude to the second period. Alex Song fouled Ji-Sung Park and the England striker curled an effort towards the far corner only for Wojciech Szczesny to turn the ball aside.
However, the visitors’ best period of the game only precipitated the Arsenal opener.
The home side attacked down the right and Van Persie’s well-timed cut-back allowed Ramsey to stroke home a shot into the far corner.
It was his Arsenal first goal since the equaliser at West Ham in an FA Cup Third Round tie on January 3, 2010. Vidic nearly replied immediately but his header slid by the far post from Evra’s corner.
The game now discovered a real aggression. Manchester United had upped the tempo in the second half and Arsenal had responded in kind. The goal only added to the tension.
In the 68th minute, Johan Djourou fell awkwardly and had to be replaced by Squillaci. The change, plus the visitors bringing on Antonio Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov, put Arsenal on the back foot for the first time in the match.
With 14 minutes left, Rooney lead a charge forward with the home side undermanned at the back. The Englishman fed the overlapping Nani and Szczesny stood up to make a fine save at the near post.
Walcott’s raking ball across the face of goal was met by Van Persie almost on the opposite byline. It proved to be an impossible angle and the Dutchman did well to find the sidenetting.
Arshavin's work-rate had been excellent since coming on and he helped put Van Persie through in the 80th minute but the he clipped his cross into no-man’s land.
As the seconds ticked away Arsenal were under more and more scrutiny.
Manchester United had half a shout for a penalty when Clichy clipped Michael Owen and Nani failed to threaten with a couple of free-kicks.
At the full time whistle, Emirates Stadium erupted. This was a major win for Arsenal.
Wenger’s men have now beaten both of the likely Champions League Finalists at Emirates Stadium this season. The victory also arrested a run of seven games without beating Manchester United.
It was just a shame that this had not been a title-decider.
Referee: Chris Foy
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