By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal ground out a valuable point against Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger’s side drop to fourth as a result of Chelsea’s win over Swansea earlier the same day but, given his team’s performance and the strength of the opposition, the Frenchman will be quietly content with his weekend’s work.
The home side snatched the lead after only two minutes through Theo Walcott and went on to dominate the opening half-hour. The newly-crowned champions were out of sorts but created chances towards the end of the first period.
Two minutes before the whistle, Bacary Sagna clipped Robin van Persie as he tried to atone for his own error. The former Arsenal striker proved lethal with the penalty.
The second half was more even but less exciting. At the end, both sides seemed relatively happy with a draw.
Arsenal are now one point behind Chelsea and two above Tottenham having played a game more. However, after today, Wenger’s men now have a seemingly more straightforward fixture list while their opponents must play each other.
With 270 minutes of football left in the season, Wenger will fancy his chances of making the top four.
While a former Arsenal centre forward had been the focus pre-match, the manager biggest selection issue revolved around his current lynch-pin striker. Olivier Giroud’s sending off at Fulham meant he would not be seen again until the final game of the season. It could have been Gervinho or Walcott but, in hte end, Wenger plumped for Lukas Podolski as the replacement. It was the German’s first start as a centre forward since the opening day of the season.
The other change was like-for-like at left-back – Kieran Gibbs replacing Nacho Monreal.
The issue of the guard of honour had hogged the headlines in the build-up but it was over in a flash.
And, within two minutes, Arsenal were ahead.
Rosicky released Walcott in acres of space down the right-hand channel. He had time to steady himself and fire past David de Gea.
It was Walcott’s first goal since the 2-2 draw against Liverpool on January 30 and a huge fillip given that Arsenal had been supremely effective at holding on to leads this season.
Shortly afterwards it might have been 2-0 when Cazorla’s swerving effort was pawed aside in tentative fashion by the visiting goalkeeper.
Manchester United had not settled and, of course, the goal had not helped. It took them over 15 minutes to conjure up a chance – but it was a clear one.
Arsenal gave the ball away in midfield and the breakaway ended with an unmarked Phil Jones heading wide from Van Persie’s cross.
But it was still a sporadic chance. The visitors were out of sorts and picked up a rash of bookings as they tried to force themselves into the game.
On the half-hour, Arsenal broke away against an undermanned Manchester United defence. Ramsey chose Poldolski on the left and his angled drive tested De Gea. But the better option was an unmarked Walcott on the right.
Arsenal were clearly the better side but their desire for a second was leaving them exposed to Manchester United’s speed on the counter.
Five minutes from the whistle, Nani raced forward in those circumstances and clipped a delightful cross to Van Persie who steered a header towards goal. Szczesny spread himself and parried the ball away wonderfully. Shortly afterwards, Jones steered a diving header just wide.
These were clear opportunities and Arsenal were rocking. A minute before the break they conceded.
Sagna’s errant back pass towards Mertesacker was intercepted by Van Persie. The Frenchman raced back and brought down the Manchester United on the left of the area. Replays suggested Sagna had got the merest brush on the ball before taking down Van Persie.
Either way, the striker finished with all too familiar accuracy.
The whistle blew shortly afterwards.
It felt like scant reward for the quality of Arsenal’s first-half performance. However the reputation of this Manchester United side was at odds with their dominance in the table.
Their will to win was arguably their biggest strength.
Arsenal tried to rouse themselves at the start of the second half and, once again, they were the better side.
Ramsey and Rosicky had been at the heart of the home side’s control in the opening 45 minutes. The former set up the latter to curl an effort inches beyond the far post.
But Manchester United were much more of a match in this half. Van Persie flashed a ball across the face of goal then ghosted in behind the Arsenal defence but his header was saved by Szczesny.
Both sides made changes midway through the half, a response to the general drift of the game. Just after Wenger had switched Podolski for Gervinho, Laurent Koscielny hooked a corner inches over the bar.
For his part, Sir Alex Ferguson brought on Anderson for Rafael.
The game was becoming increasingly stretched. Walcott tried to bustle his way through on the right but his shot was deflected over.
As the minutes ticked away, Manchester United still had pressure but Arsenal were creating more.
Cazorla’s effort was repelled by De Gea before at the other end substitute Ryan Giggs nearly grabbed a breakaway goal with three minutes left but his effort deflected wide.
It was see-saw, even-steven and so, when the whistle went, no-one could argue justice had been served.
Arsenal still have work to do but their form suggests they can finish in the Champions League places.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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