I’m glad I dragged myself out of bed for the 1.30 kick off on Setanta today, utterly shattered from the late and draining night watching Hatton. The final whistle blew on Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat away to Middlesbrough, who were eighteenth in the league before today’s match, losing eight of the fifteen games they’d played. League positions went out of the window as Boro walked out on the field today, and were gifted an early goal thanks to Toure’s needless foul on former Gooner, Aliadiere. Downing scored the penalty, just, and from that moment on, Boro had the confidence to take the game to Arsenal, who although top of the league, couldn’t handle the onslaught of this struggling side .
On Wednesday, United were three points behind Arsenal, plus their game in hand. Ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Newcastle, Sir Alex Ferguson spoke confidently about our title challenge, boldly saying, “Arsenal are playing well, but it’s a long season and they know that, too. They will drop points, there’s no doubt about that.” That evening, Arsenal drew in a game where they were more grateful of the point than their opposition, following a cracking Newcastle display, in contrast to the uninspired game Arsenal played. Four days later, and Arsenal are losing out on all three points to relegation fodder.
Now, this is a result we, as United fans, can be all too familiar with, following our 1-0 defeat against Bolton the week before last. We went to the Reebok without five of our first choice eleven players, with no Neville, Vidic, Scholes, Rooney and Ronaldo, and we just didn’t have the edge required to leave with any points. We lost due to a defensive error from Pique at the back, who was filling in for the injured Nemanja, and despite having fourteen shots to their three, sixty percent of the possession to their forty, we were missing too many of our creative players to get a goal. Fair do’s, we couldn’t dwell on it, and we certainly were not allowed to use injuries as an excuse. We were dubbed a one/two man team, thanks to the injuries of Rooney and Ronaldo, and Arsenal were dubbed even stronger favourites.
United fans were quick to question how capable Arsenal would be if they were missing so many key players as we had been, but it was ignored by the media and their fans. We questioned the capabilities of their squad, but they had no chance to answer, until today. Arsenal faced Middlesbrough with no Fabregas, van Persie, Flamini and Hleb, and crumbled. Boro dominated the possession, 55%-45%, dominated the shots on target, 8-4, and total shots, 14-7. Now this isn’t to take anything away from the North East side, who played extremely well, but Arsenal just looked poor. They were losing out on most fifty fifty balls, they didn’t test the goalkeeper until the fourth minute of injury time when they scored their consolation goal, and were easily the second best team throughout the match.
This was the perfect result and performance ahead of “Super Sunday” next weekend, when we face the dippers and Arsenal host Chelsea. We now have a superior goal difference and are just one point behind. The psychological effect of going from a potential six points ahead to just one in the space of four days could be massive, and results going our way next weekend could be the final blow we need to take us through Christmas and the New Year in a favourable position.
There’s a long way to go and nothing is decided yet, but Arsenal have just fallen as we knew they would. Whilst the press talked them up, whilst their fans called them the Unbeatables mark II, anyone in the real World could predict they couldn’t carry on that way forever, particularly if they endured injuries, like their rivals. But I imagine even Fergie couldn’t have anticipated how early his prediction would come in to fruition.
United and Chelsea are in the same boat next week, both guaranteed top spot in their Champions League group, both traveling to a top four team’s ground. Arsenal have secured their place in the next round of Europe, but need a win and Sevilla’s failure to win to finish top. Liverpool’s progression in the competition is the most fragile, needing a win against the team ahead of them to go through, and a draw almost certainly not being enough for them to make it to the next round. Probably Arsenal, and certainly Liverpool, will be playing their strongest side midweek, giving both United and Chelsea the advantage. United beat Liverpool, Arsenal drop points to Chelsea, and we’re top. What a difference a week makes…
How many weeks until United are top of the league again?