Many of us who know the ironies of football and who have learnt when and when not to be sceptical would have been forgiven for thinking, as a consequence of the countless coverage saying how great a match this would be, that in reality we would be subjected to a boring 0-0 draw. I am sure we can all recall countless times when this has happened but this time the gods of irony gave us a break and we were made witness to an absolute classic.
This was the most anticipated Arsenal/Man utd match up for years and both managers were bursting with confidence and hyping rhetoric all week to the extent that i think even non footy fans may have tuned in for this one. Strange then that this game which is usually a 4:00pm sunday game or an 8:00pm wednesday game was actually a 12:45pm saturday game
I guess the authorities did not want fans getting too pissed before this one.
Conditions were brilliant for a game of footy. Being bright, temperate, dry and played on a perfect pitch there was going to be no excuses but what was being played on the field. The teams came out to a rapture of applause, both were as full strength as they could be, 4-5-1 versus 4-4-2, Howard Webb the referee and the two greatest premier league mangers about to go toe to toe yet again.
The way the game went was quite consistent throughout. Arsenal bundled forward with confidence and great passing whilst the sturdy united defence tried to break them down whilst waiting to counter attack and pounce on any mistakes Arsenal made. Tactically both teams played the game pretty much to perfection minus maybe a few more goals from chances that were created.
From the kick off the absolutely sublime Alexandre Hleb burst upfield and jinked into a position outside the area ready to tee up a shot for fabregas. The consequent move ended in a goal kick but it was a signal as to how the gunners would approach the game, fearless and with licence to thrill. The first 15 minutes were all Arsenal attacking and the rock solid united defence keeping them from finding the killer ball. Alexandre Hleb then fell down in the box under pressure from Vidic and there were wildspread calls for a penalty. After reviewing the footage it was a call that could have gone either way but the end decision of no penalty was the correct one (although probably would have been different if it was United at Old Trafford) and Webb made one of many correct decisions in a fantastic refereeing performance.
From that moment united's counter attacking started to have more purpose and Ronaldo dashed down the wing and laid a great ball into Giggs which was begging to be on target but his shot went wide and Arsenal were firmly warned of the united attacking threat. The game then progressed back to normal and Arsenal clocked up 60% possession just like they did against Liverpool and nearly took the lead on 35 minutes. Arsenal won a free kick in great crossing position and Gallas let it known from the off that he wanted it to go onto his head. The united defence full of knowledge of this move could not prevent the ball from reaching his head from a splendid fabregas cross but his header went straight to the feet of Van Der Sar, a little bit left or right and he would have been rewarded.
Arsenal plugged away at united who did very little in the way of attacking but they almost too predictably stole the lead just before the break. A slip by an arsenal player let Ronaldo get down the wing and lay a cross in for Rooney to finish from. Gallas slid in perfectly to block the shot and if Rooney connected properly it would have been cleared but instead he scuffed it and the dodgy shot hit Gallas' hand and fooled its way past Almunia. Rooney punched the air in delight (although it was later given as an own goal) and the half time whistle went.
This was a blow for the gunners which demanded they show their character. The same could be said for the first half as could be said for the whole game, that united did not attack enough to deserve a win. If Arsenal are going to be real title contenders then how they reacted to this was going to be a clear indicator. They had the most possession in the first half but did not create enough with it due to the nature of their formation. With Adebayor playing on his own up front but often running to either wing to join in the move there was often noone in the box to pass too. Any of the five in midfield could make the run but being fearful of the counter attack they did not want to commit men into the box. If Robin Van Persie was fit this would not have been a problem but it had to be addressed if they were to get a result they deserved from this game.
The teams came out for the second half and before many had even forged their opinion as to whether Arsenal could come back the ball was in the back of the net. Emmanuel Eboue played a brilliant ball into the middle of the box for Adebayor to run into and the rushing Van Der Sar managed to block the shot but only into the path of Sagna by the touchline who squared it to Fabregas for his 11th goal this season. The Spaniard turns hero yet again and you could see the joy in his face and the celebration from his teammates who shared his ecstacy when the ball nestled in the back of the net. Arsenal had taken no time to bring things on terms and the statement had been made that this new Arsenal WILL answer back if asked.
The next 15 minutes were magical! Arsenal were rejuvinated and they dominated possession. Hleb was exceptional and Rosicky who had a poor match against Liverpool had his best spell in an overall very pleasing performance for Arsenal. For the first time in the game the united defence was fully stretched and looked like it could crack. A shot just wide from Rosicky and a shot over from Hleb, who should have done better from the position he was in, looked like the excellent build up that will lead very soon to an inevitable goal. The fans were in fine voice and the gunners let loose but the goal which everyone could smell did not come.
Instead United ended up with a glorious chance which should have been put away by Wayne Rooney who glanced Giggs' cross wide. It was a disappointing ending to a brilliant move and the England international should have scored. Arsenal picked up the pace again but with no end product which was a real worry because United were not going to sit back all game. United always play the big games in the same fashion, sitting back and defending for 80 minutes and then go for the win. They have done it countless of times against Arsenal and Liverpool and it often pays off.
Fergy then predictably set the plan in motion bringing on O'Shea, Carrick and Saha to rejuvinate the attack and United suddenly burst into life and the fact that Arsenal failed to score in their spells of domination left lumps in a few fans' throat i am sure. Wenger replied in a fashion very different to his usual style by going all out attack too. The Arsenal boss who usually favours defensive orientated substitutions at the end of big games (if not losing) threw on Gilberto, Eduardo and Walcott to summon up a barnstorming finish.
However a fine move by united and a case of defensive shambles overshadowed the Arsenal introductions as United cruelly (and again almost too predictably) retook the lead. Wallcott's bad awareness allowed Evra to run freely into the box and Saha played him through whilst the other Arsenal defenders remained static. Almunia then ran off his line for the third time in the game and although he was saved by his defence the last two time he was left in no mans land this time and Evra squared it to Ronaldo who put the ball in an empty net. The united fans and team entourage went crazy as their tactics seemed to be working so perfectly for them. Punish every mistake and that was pretty much what they were doing.
Arsenal were shocked but did not lay down and die, they has 7 minutes plus injury time to save the game and they were desperate to do so. Walcott had a chance to run past Vidic in the area but he was outdone and then Evra nearly scored a spectacular own goal when he sliced a clearence onto his own bar. Arsenal pushed forward with everyone and Eduardo volleyed a cross over the bar, which despite being a nice idea, was probably the wrong option when he had time to control first.
United were now plagued with Arsenal players in their half but time was ticking and soon there was only one minute left. The ever surging Clichy, with his never ending energy then jinked up the line and crossed to Gallas who was suprisingly upfield in a poachers position by the near post. In true defender turned attacker fashion he missed the ball and it bounced across the goal into the path of Walcott at the back post. The young Englishmen, whose shooting has always been hot and cold, fluffed what was probably a shot which bounced back across the goal into the path of Gallas again. The united defence could do nothing to stop the whole crazy chain of events and this time Gallas would not fluff his shot but with all the conviction of a captain and a man trying to rectify an own goal fired a strike on target.
The next 15 seconds were the strangest all season as Van Der Sar dives back to palm the ball out of the goal. The stands around the goal erupt with ecstasy to indicate that the ball had crossed the line but only Gallas reacted out of the players, putting up his hand to ask the referee the question but the referee does nothing at that moment. No other Arsenal player argued the case so play continues and the saved ball ended up with Walcott again by the far post who comically fell flat on his back trying to shoot it in.
The fans were still cheering but the match was still going and the defence cleared it to the outside of the area. Some Arsenal players now started to look delighted and finally Howard Webb saw the linesman who flagged for a goal and when the realisation of the equaliser dawned on all the players the gunners went loopy and dashed for the bench. Gallas hugged a delighted Arsene Wenger whilst the players and fans lost control of their senses and erupted in unison, sharing an absolute equinox of ecstacy and sheer joy through justice.
The subsequent replays showed that the ball was clearly over the line, no ambiguity whatsoever and the full time whistle blew soon after and a wonderful match resulted in a suitable scoreline as honours were even and the Gunners stayed at the top.
The united players were distraught coming off the pitch whilst the gunners were as happy as Larry. Twice united had asked them "Are you good enough to win the league?" and twice they replied "yes we can". A fabulous game and a fabulous result for Arsenal fans who now go into the coming weeks knowing that their game in hand can be used for extending their lead rather than playing catch up.
Alex Ferguson then shamefully came out with Van Der Sar claiming it was not over the line and then he just as shamefully attacked the suprisingly brilliant Howard Webb for biased reffing. If he had been biased he would have given Arsenal the penalty, booked Anderson for yellow card fishing and given the goal as over the line himself straight away for starters. The fact is that Webb had a great game, Fergys tactics for the game worked perfectly but did not culminate in the win which frustrated him and he has shot his tongue in frustration. Like Wenger he should be bought to book for such comments although only time will tell if he does.
Overall the united defence was fantastic but Arsenal were the better team overall. They attacked constantly with no fear and with great freedom of expression. Uniteds attack were just waiting for mistakes to happen and pounce on them. It managed to get them two goals which could be said to be a success but their lack of attacking endeavour overall was very disappointing for a team of their calibre and was slightly negative for a team called the "champions" who boast a multi squillion pound team.
A just result then as both teams played well, if anyone deserved it it was Arsenal but this draw felt like a win for the gunners anyway. Still top of the league, still unbeaten, still playing top football and it is still all about Cesc Fabregas
Two tests faced, both passed, only a fool would say Arsenal are not ready to be champions. They are the swashbuckling superstars playing the best football around. Whether they do win the league remains to be seen but all gunners fans can be proud this weekend. A man once said "You can't win anything with kids", i will have to add to that statement saying "only if you are Liverpool"