Sunday, September 17, 2006

Manchester United 0 - 1 Arsenal

Arsene Wenger and his struggling side traveled to Old Trafford to meet up with the winningest team in the Premiership. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side held a 100% winning percentage, and were coming off of a 3-2 victory over Celtic in Champions League play, a match that could have easily seen the Red Devils score five or six.

For Wenger and the Gunners, they faced a difficult task in attempting not to remove just one monkey from their backs, but several. Three league matches had seen the North London side with two points and not a win to their name. They sat in 17th, hoping not to drop three points, which would see Man U rise 13 points clear at the top.

The victory over Hamburg was crucial, if not an improvement over Arsenal’s inability to score. Despite some really attractive ball movement, Wenger’s boys still couldn’t find the back of the net and had to rely on a Gilberto penalty kick and an incredible strike from Tomas Rosicky to ensure victory in their first match of CL group play.

And they would look to Gilberto again, who stepped up to the spot after debutant goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak was alleged to have brought down Emanuel Adebayor in the box and in the absence of Thierry Henry, the Brazilian international sent his shot right into the arms of Kuszczak. Arsenal fans rued the outcome, thinking it was perhaps the best opportunity for their team to score.

But Manchester United had many chances throughout the game. Cristiano Ronaldo, much-improved than last-year’s step-over addict, was dangerous in front of the Arsenal goal, but he wasted a sure chance when he found himself one on one with Jens Lehmann in the six-yard box, and rifled a cracker straight into the German’s face. But it is Cesc Fabregas’ takeaway from Ronaldo that will be remembered tonight. Certainly Fabregas found himself the recipient of a few lucky bounces when he rambled into the Man U box and threaded a beautifully-weighted pass to Adebayor, who toe-poked it home past Kuszczak.

Michael Carrick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in for Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney with ten minutes left, but couldn’t make anything out of the frantic final minutes of the match.

So we have Man U’s first loss and Arsenal’s first win in league play so far. The monkeys I was referring to earlier? Well, they may well still be there, but clearly Arsenal was the better team today and the quality of Man U’s passing was enough to make Fergie’s face even redder. Scholes and Rooney, in their first league games back after separate three-match bans weren’t exhibiting the form they had in the beginning of the season.

Overall, though, it was Arsenal that outplayed the Red Devils today, enough to prompt Wenger to believe his team is still in the hunt for the title. I know it’s early, and anything that’s said now is typically nothing more than sound bites, but I believe Wenger does have the belief, as he said before today’s match, that tremendous potential exists for his team.

On paper, it’d be hard not to see Arsenal in a close hunt for silver this year, with the traditional likes of Liverpool, Man U and Chelsea, and Wenger’s eye for talent and tactical acumen are second to none. But questions remain for the Frenchman and his side. Can they put up a good performance against a mediocre team that puts everyone behind the ball in defense?

Let’s be realistic. As massive as this win is for Arsenal, it’s really not that important for Manchester United. Their great run of form in the beginning, combined with Liverpool and Arsenal’s poor results, only act as a preliminary cushion for the long-haul of the season.

But it’s hard to look past those monkeys. The first win at Old Trafford for Arsenal since 2002, and the first win against United in eight meetings, should do much to turn Wenger’s ship around. Arsenal were undoubtedly the better side today, with Manchester United making horrendous mistakes at times, and it was enough to vault the London side into the top half of the table, still with a game on hand.

Match Report [BBC Sport]
Featherweight Fabregas [Times Online]
Don’t write us off [Guardian UK]
Keano’s thoughts [Guardian UK]


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