|photo by Gilles Gonthier||via PhotoRee|
With Manchester City's dramatic late win over Tottenham in Sunday's early contest, it was left to the other team from Manchester to make up the weekend's point deficit all by themselves. United trotted out in their lucky blue and black away kits needing three points from behind enemy lines to keep ground with the League leaders. For their part, Arsenal entered the game with a less than full-strength squad, in a season beset by injuries, as Head Gunner Arsene Wenger handed 18 year-old Alexis Oxlaide-Chamberlain his full League debut.
The game began a cagey enough affair, with both sides sniffing the other out like a pair of dogs. Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Oxlaide-Chamberlain saw the best opportunities in the early going, although Jonny Evans and Anders Lindegaard proved up to the task when called upon. Meanwhile, Arsenal were content to sit back and allow United to build from within their own half, but the visitors' patient interplay failed to showcase much in the way of attacking intent.
Somewhat worryingly for the away side, Phil Jones was stretchered off at the game's 15 minute mark, the victim of an ankle roll replaced by Rafael Da Silva after being added to United's lengthy injury worries. After the substituion United began to look a bit more threatening -- more like the ominous clouds hanging over the darkening skies above the Emirates -- but were unable to navigate their way past the makeshift Gunner defense.
It was the 25th minute before Danny Welbeck caught the eye, but the young Englishman's first streak forward was interrupted at the last minute by Laurent Koscielny's pacey defending. Ryan Giggs was one of United's few bright spots in the game's first half hour, with his jinking runs through the middle of the pitch providing some few looks at the never-aging Welshman's peerless wizardry.
United's pressure built as Luis Nani was stopped by Arsenal 'keeper Wojciech Sczcesny, the young Pole denying the winger at the near post. Arsenal was reduced to applying pressure through the counter attack, a 180 degree role reversal in the two teams' typical behavior in the encounter. Mike Dean refused a penalty on Wayne Rooney -- although it was more scant hope from Wazza than reaction to a sharp elbow which accompanied his fall in the box. Nani blazed in on goal as the interval drew near, but the wide man's decision making proved as frustratingly off target as his eventual shot.
In final half stoppage time it was Giggs yet again, combining with Antonio Valencia for some late drama. The Ecuadorian netted off Gigg's arcing cross for one of his most meaningful goals of the season, providing a powerful hammer blow to the Gunners' hopes. The timing of the half was unfortunate: the visitors now had the lead and were in the ascendancy, but with a new 45 minutes still to play there was only the slimmest of winning margins separating the two sides at the break.
Arsene Wenger changed Johann Djourou for Nicholas Vennaris to begin the second half, the result of the torrid time the Swiss defender experienced in the first 45 minutes of action. When Chris Smalling slipped and fell early in second half action, it was heart in mouth time for the traveling fans: Tomas Rosicky unselfishly passed the ball to a wide open Robin Van Persie in front of goal, but the Arsenal Captain was shockingly off target with a tied scoreline seemingly firmly on his foot.
The miss, however, seemed to spark the visitors back into the match, with Ramsey missing another fine scoring opportunity a short while later. The home side looked a different squad than the dejected eleven that left the pitch at the half, and the game took on the feeling of a rather tense affair. When Rosicky's shot was blocked in the box by United Captain Patrice Evra, the lead appeared to be hanging by the slimmest of all threads. Oxlaide-Chamerlain's miss around the post ate away at some of that thread, and it appeared only a matter of time before the game would be tied, as the visitors' offense all but dried up.
Per Mertesacker tried to provide the visitors with a gift, but the Arsenal defender most likely to be compared with a statue somehow managed to chase down the ball that resulted from Welbeck's streaking collision with Sczcesny, and clear it off the line. Sczcesney and Welbeck collided a second time just a minute later, but the result was once again the same, as the scoreline remained 1-nil.
But not for long -- When Robin Van Persie solved Anders Lindegaard to equalize it was a cruel, cruel blow, but only the most ardent Red wouldn't say the goal was coming. United fans were left to ponder the question of whether David De Gea may have done better with the Dutchman's shot, as well as the more serious elephant in the room: despite all the confident chatter to the contrary, was this season's fragile United squad up to the task of challenging for the title, or was this game to be the beginning of the end?
Sir Alex introduced Paul Scholes and Ji-Sung Park with 15 minutes left, but the moves appeared to be more desperation than inspiration. At least Fergie's moves had the benefit of happening in front of a largely hostile crowd; when Arsene Wenger took off Oxlaide-Chamberlain, however, the home crowd gave him no such dispensation, lustily booing the introduction of the flaccid Andre Arshavin in place of the their newfound hero. Lindegaard collided with Walcott to create an eery calm before the storm, but when the Arsenal winger limped off the pitch it was game on once again as the match quickly resumed its frenetic pace.
It was with under ten minues left on the clock that Antonio Valencia resumed his one man, never-say-die campaign by dribbling into the box before picking out Danny Welbeck to restore United's one goal cushion. It was a thumping finish, and the trademark, pumping arm celebration that followed revealed Welbeck's true enthusiasm for the blow.
United still needed eight-plus minutes of regular time, plus five minutes of stoppage time to see out the game, and rather than do so calmly it was hands-over-the-eyes time for this particular viewer. The importance of the 2-1 win cannot be overstated, coming after City's statement victory earlier in the afternoon: it was a big win for the Reds and kept their title hopes alive and burning brightly.
This is farlieonfootie for January 23.