A billion people worldwide were reported to have watched that. And not a single one of them would have felt unfulfilled come the final whistle. Although it wasn’t the football feast that many had (unrealistically) expected, it was two top teams going head to head for supremacy, resulting in an intriguing and absorbing 90 minutes.
The way the press had built the game up you would have been forgiven for thinking it was a European Cup final or an end-of-season decider a la Anfield 1989. And it had an effect on me too, as I woke up feeling pretty damn nervous – I hadn’t been this nervous since the Champions League final, and the last time I felt like this domestically was before the fateful 50th unbeaten game that never was at Old Trafford three years ago. Ever since then (in the league), no Arsenal-Man Utd fixture has carried any real importance apart from bragging rights. This one was different though as the teams went into the game neck and neck atop of the table. More than anything, the winner would gain a significant psychological advantage over the vanquished.
As expected, Le Boss made eleven changes from the team that took to the pitch against Sheffield United as he reverted to those who picked up a point at Anfield. There were many ifs and buts regarding his front pairing but I was never in doubt that he’d stick with just the one striker, despite impressive claims by Eduardo and Theo over recent weeks. Watching it on TV you could hear the home crowd in fine voice, they really seemed to raise their game yesterday so good stuff from the 12th man. The opponents nominally lined up with Rooney and Tevez up-front and Giggs and Ronaldo supporting them from the flanks, although with that personnel and our extra man in midfield I was sure we’d see Giggs dropping into the middle leaving the other three up against our defence.
Right from the kick-off we were at it, instead of the usual passing the ball backwards Hleb took the fight to United as he dribbled through the centre but nothing came of it. The first effort on goal came from our marauding left-back Gael Clichy, who drove forward but his shot was harmless as it trickled wide of the post. The Frenchman was involved in the next bit of positive play as he crossed for Ade whose miscued header sailed wide. One thing I have noticed over the last month is a marked improvement in Gael’s crossing. This was the one area where I felt he was behind Armand Traore but it looks like he has addressed that.
Almost straightway United had their first sniff of goal down the other end. Rooney clipped the ball over the top of our defence for Giggs to chase onto and the Welshman delivered a teasing cross to the near post where Tevez couldn’t convert under pressure from Gallas. On the quarter-hour we had a decent shout for a penalty as Alex sped into the box on the left-side. Vidic had a fistful of his shirt, but like Jamie Carragher last week he got away with ‘moider’. Howard Webb, who also in charge last week, must’ve been a defender in a previous life. The ref produced his first booking of the day to Evra a minute later as Ade got the better of him on the right touchline and then was scythed down by his former Monaco team-mate. A professional foul if I ever I saw one. The resulting free-kick amounted to nothing for the home side – in fact United broke very dangerously on the counter-attack. Ronaldo went down the right-wing and put in a cross to the back post. Sagna, worringly, left it with Giggs breathing down his neck, but in the end this caught the Welshman by surprise and the ball ricocheted off him and past Almunia’s post. Not long after that Giggs had a pot-shot from distance but it went over the bar. This was to be a theme for the rest of the day: Arsenal having the majority of the possession but United looking dangerous on the break.
The game then descended into a bit of scrap and Hargreaves got booked in the midst of it. There was a moment when my past hatred for United was reignited as Fergie complained endlessly about a foul given against his angelic Evra on Eboue right in front of him. He must be a blind git for not seeing that despite standing so close to the incident, at least when Wenger doesn’t see something it is usually far away (ahem).
We won a free-kick on the right wing and just before Cesc took it Gallas trotted over to him to tell him something. Whatever he told him, it worked, as Cesc’s delivery was right on the money but Gallas could not direct his downward header either side of Van der Sar, the lanky Dutchman saving with his feet.
Anderson was pissing me off with his constant asking the ref to book our players. I get a feeling that he’s gonna be a thorn in our sides for a few years. He got his wish minutes later when Cesc crunched him and got a yellow, his fourth of the season. I’m not usually one to advocate violence, but get in there Cesc! Anderson stayed on the floor rolling around like a pu$$y to ensure the booking, and then Cesc gave him a mouthful when he got up unscathed.
United’s major threat in the last fifteen minutes of the half came from crosses from the right to our near post. The first time Kolo nipped in ahead of Rooney to clear. The second came in stoppage time, but this time Rooney ran in front of his marker and connected with the cross. This time the marker was Gallas, who, because he was a few yards away from Rooney, got a vital deflection and sent it past the hapless Almunia. A sickener just before half-time. Had Gallas been touch tight to Rooney then firstly he might not have got a shot away, and secondly even if he had, Almunia would have been better placed to save it as it wouldn’t have had the aid of a deflection. Rooney holds an Indian sign over Arsenal and has done ever since he broke our 30-game unbeaten run in the blue of Everton in 2002. In 2004 he was the catalyst to the end our historic 49-game unbeaten run with his diving antics, and now he was on the verge of stopping another record in its tracks as we went for a club record of 25 unbeaten in all competitions. Wayne Rooney: the Bane of Arsenal.
For us to harbour any realistic hope of winning the match, we needed to get an early goal in the second-half. And that we did. From a United throw deep in our own half, we regained possession and the twisting, turning, jinking Alex Hleb got free of Anderson and chipped the ball forward to Cesc who, having initially won the ball back from the throw, had bombed forward and was in acres of space. He played it forward to Ade who then layed it off to Eboue. The Ivorian clipped one over the tope of the United defence and Ade met it but his effort was blocked by the onrushing Van der Sar. The ball broke to Sagna on the right byline (kudos to him for getting so far forward and supporting the attack) and he showed plenty of desire to get the ball back across the face of goal. It fell to Fabregas, and just like last week when he had an open goal, I thought he was going to rush it and blast it. Thankfully he didn’t, placing the ball as cool as you like into the bottom corner and beyond the not-so-despairing dive of Rio on the line. Jubilation at the Emirates, not only because it was the equaliser but the fact that it had come so early.
We had our tails up, secure in the knowledge that parity had been restored and that we had the best part of 45 minutes to try and grab another goal. However, despite all the possession we couldn’t create anything clear-cut. There was one chance that fell to the Flamster from 20-yards following a lay-off from Ade, but his shot was high, wide and handsome. Then we had another penalty shout as Gael went on one of his now traditional dangerous dribbles and as he cut the ball back it struck Hargreaves’ arm, but in truth it was never a pen. Speaking of Gael, we were looking particularly strong out wide on both flanks. Defensively, he didn’t give Ronaldo as sniff, and on the right Sagna was providing some excellent overlaps for Eboue. Theirs is definitely a partnership that continues to blossom. One problem we did have throughout the whole game was Ade and his tendency to drift wide, with or without the ball. Similar to Anfield last week, this left us short of numbers in the middle for any potential cross. And even the midfielders had got into the box, they’re not exactly the biggest of players to challenge the likes of Rio and Vidic, are they? Ade hasn’t done as well as lone target these last few weeks as he did last season, and for the forthcoming games until Robin is back I see no reason why we shouldn’t start someone alongside him.
Our period of dominance ended with little to show for it. United came back into the game and nearly took the lead as a neat move saw Giggs find Rooney arriving late into the box. Thankfully his header went past the post, but it was a gilt-edged opportunity. Finally the game had opened up. In front of the north end Hleb had an effort on his left foot that went wide and then got into the box on the left but couldn’t pick the right pass. Down the other end Evra nearly capitalised on a moment’s hesitation from Almunia. Rosicky also got in on the act as he tried to bend one with the outside of his right-foot but couldn’t manufacture enough swerve.
And then came the substitutions which so nearly cost us the game. Within the space of five minutes Theo, Gilberto and Eduardo came on for Eboue, Alex and Tomas. This left us with three central midfielders and three strikers on the pitch, with Eduardo and Theo covering the flanks. I was surprised at these changes, especially because the combination of Eboue and Sagna was bossing things down their flank and Hleb had been ever-threatening. I suppose you have to applaud Wenger for going for the jugular – I remember in the unbeaten season when we were one-nil up that he bought on Cygan for a winger (I can’t remember if it was Jose or Freddie or Bobi Pires), and that handed the initiative back to United who forced a late equaliser. This time though, maybe he should’ve erred on the side of caution and not brought on BOTH Theo AND Edaurdo.
It was down Theo’s side that United went ahead again. Saha found Evra who was running free into the box having not been tracked by Theo. He squared and Ronaldo tapped it in. Bollocks. Had Eboue been on the pitch, I can’t help but feel that he would’ve done a better job of marking Evra than Theo, who lest we forget is a striker by nature, not a wide midfielder.
All seemed lost for the remaining ten minutes as United looked every inch the winners of this game, knocking the ball around perfectly and retaining possession without taking any unnecessary risks. We did create a few openings, most notably down the left where Eduardo had come on. Kolo took the game by the scruff of the neck and burst forward over the halfway line to find Eduardo out wide. The Crozilian, who I’ve noted is a very good crosser from that side, played in a low one but Ade could not divert it goalwards at the near post. However the ball went right the way across the goal and bounced off Evra at the back but went tantalisingly over the bar. He could’ve gone from hero to zero in an instant, the lucky sod. The next chance came at the beginning of the three minutes of injury time but Eduardo’s snapshot went wide of the near post. Surely that was it…
Not quite. Gael showed great desire to win the ball and keep it in play close to the touchline. He put in a dangerous cross (Fergie later said it was a hoof, yeah right) which bounced at the near post and through to Theo at the back. He mis-hit it and it went back across the face of the goal where Captain Willy had somehow ended up. The skipper hit a controlled half-volley in the direction of the goal, but it looked like a combination of Van der Sar, Vidic and Lady Luck had cleared it off the line. It came back out to Walcott but his effort was deflected and then hacked off the line by the sprawling Van der Sar, and it just wouldn’t go in. But then all of a sudden the referee was spotted with his hand out signalling a goal, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell where it had come from. Theo, bless him, was still continuing to play until Cesc went to him to notify him that we’d scored, and in the process gave it large to Rio, telling him not so politely to "f*ck off". Great stuff.
I went mad with celebrations but calmed myself down in enough time to see the replay where it was revealed the Willy Gallas had done a captain fantastic as his half-volley had creeped over the line, despite Van der Sar’s best efforts to claw it back. If you look closely at the replay and you can see Hargreaves’ reaction – from the moment the ball goes over the line he stops playing, knowing full well that we’d equalised. What a moment. I was shaking with joy and relief. "We are top of the league!" taunted the home fans, who had been fantastic throughout. The final whistle went, and it felt like a win. Although our 100% home record had gone for a Burton, we’d set a new club record of 25 unbeaten in all competitions. But more important than that, we hadn’t let our closest rivals steal a march on us, both in the table and mentally.
Onto the individual performances. I can’t fault the defence much, Gallas should’ve done better to stop Rooney for their first goal and there was a moment where Almunia was slow out of his blocks to smother Evra in the second-half. Kolo as always was a lion, and the full-backs kept the United wingers very quiet and had a hand in both our goals.
The midfield looked solid and composed without ever being swashbuckling, but that was expected against an outfit as strong as Man Utd. Anderson and Hargreaves sat very deep and never threatened offensively, but in turn they didn’t allow Cesc, Hleb and Rosicky too much time or space to weave their magic. Our best outlet was wide on the right with Eboue and Sagna.
Up-front Ade ploughed a lone furrow but just like last week he wasn’t at his best. While I felt this time round he held the ball better and linked play more effectively, his goalscoring threat was almost non-existent, partly down to his frustrating tendency to drift wide. That is all good and well when he has Robin or someone else alongside him, but in a 4-5-1 he really needs to remain the focal point of our attack.
All in all, I don’t think there is any way that one can begrudge us a point from this game. We showed great resiliency in coming from behind twice, and because of the lateness of the final goal it felt like a victory. After the game Fergie was bleating on (in an MUTV interview where his word is the law and no-one dares question him) about the ref favouring us, but I don’t see where he is coming from. The ref was too whistle-happy and stopped the natural flow of the game with his nitpicking. He didn’t have a great game, but thankfully his assistants did! :-D
My Top Gun for the day has to be William Gallas. He probably knew he was at fault for their first goal and was granted a quick reprieve by Cesc’s equaliser coming so soon after the break. But it was the wherewithal to go forward and support the attack in the last minute and his excellent finish of a very difficult chance – even centre-forwards would have struggled to tuck that away – seals it for me. That was a Tony Adams moment, you can just envisage Mr. Arsenal abandoning his defensive station to save the day like that. Combined with his performance at Anfield last (especially that last-ditch, last minute block from an almost-certain Stevie Gerrard goal), he has grown as a captain this week and guided the young team through some real adversity. I liked his post-match interview too where he mentioned that he had told the troops that they must be willing to die for the cause. Obviously he didn’t mean it literally, but it reminded me of a quote from Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday: "Football is a game of inches…and in any fight, it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch." Pacino’s team went on to win that day. And with that desire, commitment and passion, Arsenal may just go on to win the league.