One of our finest performances of last season was our 3-1 demolition of Arsenal at the Emirates, in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final. We were controlled defensively but were a live wire when going forward.
There are so many comparisons we can draw between that game and the one we witnessed today. Obviously our opponent, the location and the scoreline, but also the less obvious. Arsenal’s only goal last season came from a wrongly awarded penalty and today their only goal came from a deflection, that had been heading straight to Van der Sar. The best goal of our season came against Arsenal, whereby it took us just 9.2 seconds to get the ball from the edge of our penalty area, following an Arsenal corner, to the back of their net. Today, we scored another brilliant goal in counter-attacking fashion and according to the analysis on Sky Sports, also took just 9.2 seconds to get from the edge of our box to the back of their net. Like it was the Portuguese winger Ronaldo who was Man of the Match last season, it was the Portuguese winger Nani who claimed that accolade today.
Any differences? Well for one, whilst we were brilliant in that game last season, we were absolutely sublime today.
Arsenal’s first shot on target came after 57 minutes, with a tame attempt from Cesc Fabregas which Edwin collected easily. That’s not because United had been playing a defensive game, we were already 3-0 up, but our midfield had bossed the game and our defenders had kept them out. Bear in mind, we’re still without our first choice two central defenders, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but our third and fourth choice performed admirably.
Before scoring, Nani got away down the right to deliver a great ball in the box, but it was cleared for a corner. From the resulting corner, Arsenal almost headed in to their own net, but it was cleared off the line. Nani then pulled a shot wide of the post from six yards out after Rafael played him in.
Nani opened the deadlock for us, although the goal has been credited as an Almunia own goal. An audacious bit of skill, which saw him flick the ball between Gael Clichy, who couldn’t handle him all day, and Nasri, before dinking it past Denilson (who had claimed this morning that they were men now, not little boys) and lifting it for a cross. The ball was heading to Ji-Sung Park to tap in unmarked at the back post, before Almunia palmed it in to his own net. Nani wheeled away, clearly ecstatic, and for all his skill involved it’s a shame it isn’t rewarded with the goal to his name.
United continued to dominate and five minutes later were 2-0 up, with man of the moment, Wayne Rooney, finding the back of the net. Rosicky took a short corner for Arsenal, before Park got the ball away to Rooney outside our box. He played a brilliant ball to Nani who had all the space in the world. He sprinted away from our half deep in to Arsenal’s, before playing the perfect pass to Wayne Rooney to finish with his first touch. This was counter attacking football at it’s finest and Arsenal had no ideas how to stop us.
Whilst their players were disappointing, you have to wonder what their manager was thinking. I think today was a better performance than the European game, but they weren’t too dissimilar, so why hadn’t Wenger worked out what they were going to have to do stop us? Surely he isn’t naive enough to think we were incapable of pulling out such a performance without Cristiano Ronaldo (even though I imagine the vast majority of Arsenal fans would, given the things they had to say on here before kick off. Chortle!) so why hadn’t he put something in to stop our brilliant counter attacking. It was Kieran Gibbs who got turned inside out at left-back last season, but what excuse has Gael Clichy got? I thought he was supposed to be better than Patrice Evra!
It was important for us to go in 2-0 up at half time and we managed that, despite Arsenal seeing a bit of the ball on the edge of our box in the minutes leading up to the whistle.
Three minutes after the restart it was heart in mouth time, with Wayne Rooney on the deck after being caught in the knee by the studs of Sagna. After hobbling off, he came back on a minute later and looked able to jog it off.
The third goal against started with an Arsenal attack, with Evra booting the ball out of our box in the direction of Park. Carrick played a one two with Rooney, who then gave the ball to Park. He ran away with it and as he approached the area I’m sure I wasn’t alone in screaming for him to pass the ball. No offence, but Rooney and Nani were in great positions and I fancied them to score. But credit where it’s due to Park, who slotted it away nicely. 3-0 up after 52 minutes.
United looked far more likely to score a fourth than Arsenal did to score at all, with Rooney pulling his shot inches wide of the post after skipping past the sub Eboue. But with ten minutes to go, an acrobatic effort from Vermaelen received a cruel deflection to take it away from Van der Sar.
United still continued to throw players forward though, with Almunia’s blushes being saved by Vermaelen, who got a toe in to stop Nani when one on one with the keeper who had given the ball away then in injury time, Berbatov couldn’t got a shot away but the ball fell nicely for Rooney in the box, but somehow he managed to shoot wide.
I ruled Arsenal out of the title race at the start of the season, long before their embarrassing 3-0 defeat at home to Chelsea. Whilst they play great football on their day, they simply do not have the consistency or the squad to compete with the best. They were poor today, and I know they’re missing the likes of Robin van Persie and Eduardo, but we were missing players too. Difference is, we have players of the quality of Brown and Evans to fill in, whereas Arsenal’s replacements wouldn’t get close to the United squad. We were pretty poor when we faced them at home, yet we still managed a 2-1 win. That’s why we’re Champions, I guess.
In our last game at the Emirates we were really stretched at times, having to pay a lot of attention to our defensive game as well as our attack. Today though, we came for them time and again, even when we could have sat back and settled. We were hungry for it, playing our attacking football and always searching for another goal. Ferguson got it spot on and today is just another example, in a long line, to show him as the best manager around.
He also has to get the credit for the brilliant man management of Nani, who played a blinder today, following several good performances since returning from “injury”. After the Hull game, I noted how much better Nani is on the right and the problems that creates with Valencia. He again played a blinder on the right and forced Valencia, who didn’t start against City, on to the bench. Fergie won’t want to drop Nani now, with him starting three games in a row for in the first time in two years, and it clearly is doing him good.
This was a great performance and a great result for United. We’re now four points ahead of Arsenal, on equal games, and a point behind Chelsea having played a game more. We’re hitting top form, as we usually do in the second half of the season, and our players are returning from injury.
We’ve still got 14 games to play and a maximum of 42 points to play for. But we really look to have come to the turning point of our season and the emphatic performance and important three points today have made that all the more concrete.
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