EPL 2006–2007: Arsenal 2 – Manchester United 1

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
January 21st, 2007 • 3:23 pm

Wow. This was more exciting than a cup final! With Manchester United seemingly poised to run away with the title, and Arsenal coming off the back of two consecutive cup wins at Anfield and a good away result at Blackburn in the league, plus an excellent victory at Old Trafford in the corresponding fixture back in September, the stage was set for a massive battle.

Yet it was also the first visit of the Red Devils at the new Emirates stadium, where the Gunners are still unbeaten but have conceded too many draws, raising concerns about the team’s adaptation to their new grounds. So, was Manchester United about to inflict the first home defeat at the Emirates and increase their league to 9 points in the EPL, or were the Gunners ready to play their part, once again, in keeping the title race open, even though their own hopes of challenging for the title probably vanished with that poor performance at Sheffield United during the holiday season? Or was it going to be another disappointing stalemate, as has been the case quite a few times against the Red Devils in recent years?

Well, amazingly enough, in the course of 90 minutes, we experienced all three scenarios, with their associated emotions—but fortunately in the right order for the Gunners.

The first half was not particularly exciting. The Red Devils had the upper hand in the first quarter of an hour, renewing concerns that it was going to be yet another tentative performance by the young Gunners at home at the Emirates. But they couldn’t create anything significant. There were a few incidents yet again raising issues regarding the theatrical aspect of some players’ game, including Cristiano Ronaldo, but also, it pains me to say, Arsenal’s own Éboué, who was back to his dirty tricks early on against Wayne Rooney. The right-back had insisted earlier this week that he was ready to play against Manchester United and badly wanted to, and Arsène Wenger granted him his wish, but his defensive performance again probably raised quite a few eyebrows among Arsenal fans. Fortunately, that is not the only aspect of his game that we saw today…

Unfortunately, referee Steve Bennett was once again a pretty disappointing actor in this high-profile contest, and I say that both for the decisions that went against the Red Devils—the yellow cards to Evra and Giggs—and for the ones that went against the Gunners. Kolo Touré got a pretty silly yellow card too, quite early in the game, forcing him to be extra careful for the rest of the afternoon. But above all, Thierry Henry had really strong penalty claims after a challenge by Gary Neville. There was most definitely contact, as the replays showed quite clearly. But presumably Henry went down a tad too theatrically for Steve Bennett’s taste, and Gary Neville appeared to think that, since it was in a corner of the surface where Thierry Henry, with his back to goal, was not going to have any kind of real scoring opportunity, he could take the chance and bring him down. It’s a pretty strange form of reasoning, but amazingly enough, Steve Bennett appeared to agree with it.

Anyway, late in the first half Manchester United had two pretty good chances, and Jens Lehmann did well to deny them. On the other hand, the Gunners didn’t have any real opportunities in this first half, so it looked like the Red Devils were winning on points, just like we were ourselves at Old Trafford back in September—not that winning on points gives you anything in football.

And then the parallels between the two games became even more obvious when Manchester United managed to score through Rooney early in the second half. It was a good goal, created by an excellent run by Patrice Evra down the left flank. Touré could have done better with his deflection, and the ball fell kindly to Rooney who was left unmarked by Clichy and Flamini and headed in with no chance for Jens Lehmann.

For a while there it really looked like the Red Devils were going to be able to do to us what we had done to them in September. They scored pretty early in the second half, giving Arsenal fans hopes that there was enough time to turn things around. But then Manchester defended well, and we were unable to create many clear goal-scoring opportunities. And time started to run out, slowly but surely. Many players were working hard, especially Emmanuel Adebayor, who was yet again running tirelessly from one end to the other, and Arsenal were certainly dominating both in possession and in chances, but they lacked the cutting edge, the final pass that would make the difference, and Arsenal’s attack usually found itself overcrowded in the center of pitch, with not enough width provided by the wingers and the full-backs.

But then a couple of things happened. One is that Arsène Wenger brought on van Persie, who wasn’t fit for an entire game because of ankle problems, but could make a contribution towards the end, and Baptista, who signalled his intention of becoming a key Arsenal player with his four goals in the Carling Cup last week. Henry did his best to try and get the crowd going. And more important, the full-backs started going forward a bit more to support the wingers.

It was obviously a risky strategy, but the Gunners didn’t have much choice. I must admit that, like many viewers probably, I was starting to despair. There were too many long balls forward, usually a sign of increasing desperation on the players’ part, especially when it comes to Arsenal, where long balls forward are simply not part of their genes. Adebayor did his best to try and win the aerial battle and make something of these long balls, but it wasn’t happening. Thierry Henry worked hard too, but had a pretty weak header easily saved by the United keeper, and a free kick easily blocked by the wall, although his shot on the rebound could have surprised a less attentive keeper.

And then, with ten minutes to go, the combined changes finally paid off. Rosicky got a good cross in from the right flank, Thierry Henry tried something acrobatic that didn’t work at all, but it did enough to distract the Manchester United defence, and the ball finally reached the on-rushing van Persie. It was a really tight angle, but I think van Persie has proven in the past couple of years that, especially with his left foot, a tight angle doesn’t bother him all that much. It didn’t here, and van Persie’s finish was emphatic and spectacular, leaving van der Sar no chance.

It was a great goal, and just rewards for the Gunners’ persistence. It was late in the game and was effectively enough to rescue a point and preserve the unbeaten home record at the Emirates. The commentators were starting to talk about whether 1-1 was a fair result overall (it was), but there were still nearly ten minutes to go (with a sizable chunk of extra time). In the back of my mind, there was a bit of hope that the Gunners wouldn’t focus on trying to preserve the draw, and would still try to go for a win. The Manchester United players didn’t lose their concentration, though, and Arsenal still had to be very vigilant.

And then, in extra time, with only a minute and a half left, the Gunners did what they do best, i.e. continued to play their passing game. Éboué ran forward, had a great one-two with Rosicky, and send a perfect cross for which Thierry Henry was perfectly placed… with a great header! It was strongly reminiscent of the key moment in the World Cup final in extra time, when Zidane had a similar opportunity with a great header and Buffon managed to acrobatically send the powerful shot over the crossbar.

The difference is, of course, that this time it went in! A fantastic goal and a wonderful explosion of joy in the Emirates stadium. Who says that Thierry Henry does not deliver in big games? OK, it was “only” a regular league game, not a cup final or anything like that. But it was a very important league game just the same, because it was going to have a big impact on the remainder of the season, not just for the Gunners and Manchester United, but also for Chelsea and Liverpool.

It was a dramatic outcome and certainly felt like a very important victory, and the celebrations on the pitch after the final whistle were fully justified. Regardless of what happens between now and the end of the 2006–2007 season, the Gunners have done the double over the Red Devils in the league, and I don’t think this has happened in a long time. And it was actually fully deserved, because Arsenal never gave up, either at Old Trafford or here at the Emirates.

If they can perform like this against the league leaders and other top teams such as Liverpool and Chelsea, there is really no reason why they cannot achieve greater consistency and become real title contenders again next season… or even between now and April. It’s still a very long shot, and would require a very strong and consistent run by the Gunners as well as a significant loss of form at Manchester United, coupled with on-going tensions and disappointments at Stamford Bridge. But who knows? It ain’t over till it’s over.

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