Arsenal given a glimpse of the future as Aaron Ramsey shows Manchester United what they missed
Premier League: Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0
Aaron Ramsey’s second-half winner reignited the race for the Premier League title as Arsenal ended a month of misery in fine style by inflicting defeat on Manchester United.
This was Arsenal’s first win over United for two and a half years and in seven times of asking, and it sends Chelsea to Old Trafford next weekend with a real chance of drawing level with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side at the top.
Three points now separate the two sides who have shared the title for the past six seasons, and while this victory may not give Arsenal even a glimmer of being involved themselves, it was a win that imbued all at the Emirates with a degree of satisfaction after a traumatic six weeks in their campaign.
The sight of a furious Sir Alex Ferguson stomping off down the Arsenal tunnel is not one Gunners fans have seen for some time at their own stadium.
The fact that it had been achieved with Arsene Wenger sending out the youngest Arsenal side he has selected in the Premier League this season was even more of a boost for a club and a manager who have taken quite a pounding from the critics in recent weeks.
It could have been a different game if referee Chris Foy had awarded either of what looked to be two clear penalties, one for Arsenal in the first half when Nemanja Vidic slyly but decisively handballed a Bacary Sagna cross, and one for United right on the stroke of full-time when Gael Clichy raked his studs down Michael Owen’s calf.
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But Arsenal had done more than enough to merit their victory by then and it was also achieved despite the absence of Cesc Fabregas.
The captain’s non-appearance was more than a little curious. The official line was that he had picked up a thigh strain. However, his usually length programme notes were cut down to a bare minimum and after his recent high-profile questioning of his manager’s methods, this had the feel of something a little more sinister.
Time will tell, but many supporters and pundits have already made up their own mind about where the Spanish midfielder will be playing his football next season.
If Wenger was looking to the future, then the evidence was in his team selection, and specifically a midfield quintet of almost unnerving youthfulness.
Jack Wilshere, Ramsey and Alex Song were chosen as the central trio, and Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott on the flanks. None of that five are over 23, and the average age of the side was just 23 years and 296 days. No wonder Edwin Van der Sar, 41, has decided it is probably time to retire.
As Wenger should know only too well by now, however, you don’t win any prizes for playing the youngest side, especially against a team who are looking very capable of winning a Premier League and Champions League double for the second time in three years.
That did not look the case in the opening stages though, as Arsenal surged forward and should have led as early as the third minute when Wilshere should have done better than lash wide from 15 yards.
Emboldened, the Gunners dominated possession but found the United defence in its usual formidable mood, with Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both keeping a close eye on Robin van Persie. Walcott had a couple of half-openings on the right flank but it was cat and mouse stuff for much of the first half.
United’s one real chance of the opening period arrived when Park Ji-Sung cut inside Laurent Koscielny but Bacary Sagna was on hand to block the South Korean’s cross.
The big moment of controversy came just past the half-hour mark when Sagna broke clear down the right and crossed towards Robin van Persie. Vidic, knowing he was out of position, clearly deflected the ball for a corner with his hand, but as the Dutchman led furious protests from the Arsenal players, Foy waved away their penalty appeals.
The replays that soon followed confirmed both the contact and the intent, but by then it was too late. Vidic and United had got away with it.
In fairness to the officials, it was a very clever piece of defending from the Serbian, but at this level of the game the feeling persists that he should no longer be able to get away it. Technology must be embraced soon, or the game will continue to be made to look flawed by moments such as this one, coming just 24 hours after Frank Lampard’s contentious goal for Chelsea against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge.
That is a debate for another day, however, and the sense of injustice seemed to inflame both the Arsenal players and the Emirates crowd.
Wayne Rooney did likewise after finding his way into Foy’s book for a shove on Wilshere, and the teams headed off at the break knowing that a highly-charged second half was in prospect.
It did not disappoint. A hamstrung Nasri had been replaced by Andrey Arshavin, but the Gunners attacked from the restart and looked the likelier side to score. Within 15 minutes they had done so.
If Wenger was looking for a vindication of his footballing principles then he probably couldn’t have asked for a better goalscorer than Ramsey.
The 21-year-old Welshman has had a long journey back from his broken leg at Stoke over 14 months ago. And this, we should not forget, is a player who turned down the advances of United to sign for the Gunners almost three years ago On only his second Premier League start since returning from that career-threatening setback, he scored a goal to savour.
Van Persie dribbled into the United box from the right flank, looked up and saw Ramsey pleading for a cut back. When the Dutchman obliged, Ramsey swept the ball low and unerringly into the United net beyond Van der Sar’s despairing right hand.
United had looked so comfortable at 0-0, but there were worried looks on their bench after that strike as the prospect of seeing their lead at the top of the table cut permanently to three points ahead of Chelsea loomed large.
They were given a sizeable boost when Johan Djourou, who has matured into Arsenal’s most consistent defender this season, had to be replaced by Sebastien Squillaci.
United had chances but Nani and Patrice Evra both saw shots well saved by Wojciech Szczesny, who once again looked the part in between the sticks for the Gunners.
But even he may have been powerless had Foy awarded United what looked a very good shout for a penalty with just a minute to go when substitute Owen looked to be tripped by Clichy in the box.
To Ferguson’s consternation on the bench, however, Foy shook his head just as he had done to Arsenal in the first half.
The title race in this strangest of seasons is not quite done yet, it seems, and even if it is not Arsenal who ultimately profit, they certainly salvaged some pride with a long-overdue victory over their great rivals.