Robin van Persie returns to haunt Arsenal, as we knew he would
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
Premier League: Arsenal 1 Manchester United 1
Robin van Persie returned to the Emirates to haunt Arsenal with an equalising goal as the Gunners failed to take a decisive step in the top-four race by defeating the newly-crowned champions.
Van Persie levelled from the penalty spot two minutes before half-time to cancel out Theo Walcott’s early opener for the Gunners, and neither side could break the deadlock in the second half.
With Chelsea having beaten Swansea comfortably at Stamford Bridge to move back into third place, Arsenal had the chance to extend their lead over Spurs to four points.
As it is their advantage over their north London rivals remains at only two points, with Spurs having a game in hand, which is at Chelsea, who are a point ahead of Arsene Wenger’s side in third.
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That clash at Stamford Bridge on May 8 could yet proven decisive, but the Gunners had the chance to keep their noses in front by defeating a United side who had, of course, sown up their 20th league title six days earlier.
After everybody had calmed down over the non-even that the ‘guard of honour’ turned out to be, Arsenal made a dream start to the game.
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At Old Trafford in November Van Persie had given United the lead inside the opening two minutes but this time it was the Gunners who made a stirring start.
It was Van Persie who actually lost possession in the centre circle, and Tomas Rosicky slipped a neat pass in behind Patrice Evra to Walcott, who sped on to it and drove a low finish through David de Gea.
It was Walcott’s 19th goal of the season and the perfect start, and the newly-crowned champions reacted in a curious way, crashing into tackles and picking up four yellow cards inside the opening half-hour.
The most surprising was for Van Persie who slid into his former team-mate Per Mertesacker and for a brief moment the Emirates entertained the notion of their former captain seeing red on his return. It was only yellow from Phil Dowd, and on second viewing even that looked harsh.
United should have been level after 17 minutes, when Van Persie cut free down the United left and centred for Phil Jones who planted his header the wrong side of a post.
Jones had another chance only to see his downward header bounce over the angle of post and crossbar, while Van Persie was denied when his point-blank header hit Wojciech Szczesny in the face.
But on 43 minutes the champions were level, and it was a highly regrettable moment from an Arsenal perspective.
Bacary Sagna first lost possession, and then compounded his error by clattering into Van Persie in the box. Dowd pointed to the spot, booked Sagna and, after a lengthy delay, Van Persie smashed in the spot-kick for his 25th league goal of a stellar season.
Like at Old Trafford, the Dutchman did not celebrate his strike against his former employers, but that was no consolation for Arsenal fans, the damage was done. Arsenal felt aggrieved but it was turned out to be a correct, and very good, decision from Dowd.
The equaliser changed the tempo of the game. Whereas United had been a little tense when behind, now they were free to express themselves.
Nani was causing plenty of problems down the United left, and Van Persie was a constant menace. There was no sympathy shown to his old team, and rightly so.
Arsenal seemed restricted to shots from distance, with Rosicky testing De Gea on a couple of occasions, before the Czech made way for Jack Wilshere after an hour.
Wenger must have been frustrated that Arsenal were creating so little, and when United broke on the counter-attack, they looked potent.
The Emirates crowd clamoured for a penalty when Antonio Valencia clearly handballed a Cazorla pass, but Dowd gave a free-kick on the edge of the area – another good decision – and the Spaniard wasted it with a tame effort.
Wenger sent on Gervinho for Lukas Podolski, who was again disappointing, and the match entered its final 15 minutes with United seeming quite happy to keep the score at 1-1, but Arsenal knowing they really needed more.
But neither of the new arrivals could find a way through a United rearguard expertly marshalled by Rio Ferdinand.
Sir Alex Ferguson introduced the 13-time title winner Ryan Giggs for the final 10 minutes, and the veteran almost won it with two minutes to go, his left-footed curling effort deflecting wide after Arsenal were caught on the counter-attack. He has broken Arsenal hearts before, lest we forget.
A defeat would have been even more damaging for the Gunners, who will not be too despondent with a point. However, they must now win at relegated QPR next Saturday and then wait and see how Spurs and Chelsea’s meeting ends up.
The race for Champions League places looks like it is going to the wire, yet again.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 79), Rosicky (Wilshere, 60), Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski (Gervinho, 72).
Subs not used: Mannone, Vermaelen, Monreal, Jenkinson.
Booked: Walcott, Sagna
Man Utd: De Gea, Da Silva (Anderson, 73), Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Jones, Nani (Giggs, 80), Rooney (Hernandez, 88), van Persie. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Cleverley, Kagawa, Buttner.
Booked: Rafael, Jones, Evans, Van Persie.
Referee: Phil Dowd