Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oh No: It's "in Arsenal's Hands" Now

Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United
Two days later, another team in blue provides Arsenal with a much-needed boost. A nice slice of irony, in that United fall victim to refereeing decisions, rather than enjoying the usual positive bias.

First half, United outplay Chelsea. Enjoy a long, dominant spell, culminating in Rooney taking advantage of some very passive defending to send a low-flying missile past Cech from outside the area. He shouldn't even be on the pitch after his risible, unpunished attack on James McCarthy at the weekend. Carrick, Scholes, and Fletcher moving in from the right, are dominating the centre of the park.

Chelsea look pallid, a mere shadow of the team that won the double last season. A switch to 4-4-2 has exposed Lampard as one-paced, and Essien has failed to become the player we all expected. On the left, Malouda struggles for the form of last season. Rooney and Hernandez are terrorising Terry and Luiz at the other end, and Nani has Ivanovic looking much less assured than usual. But as soon as United take the lead, they predictably drop off, even though there seems an opportunity to kill the game off.

Second Half
A fairly soft goal turns the tide. A cross into the box is half-cleared, bounces towards Luiz to the right of the area. Evra chases the loose ball, gets there too late, can only nudge the ball onto the Brazilian's right foot, and the shot swerves inside Van der Sar's near post.

Thus begins a frantic, exciting 35 minutes or so, in which both teams attack with pace, make myriad mistakes. Chelsea have way more shots, but United seem to be attacking in a more measured, menacing manner. Rooney gets in on the left but seems conflicted as to whether he should shoot or pass, skews the ball well wide.

Then, two big decisions go Chelsea's way. First, Luiz, already booked, blocks Rooney off. No free kick, no second yellow. Minutes later the home side storm forward, and sub Zhirkov knocks a loose ball through Smalling in the area, and falls over the young centre half. No intent, barely even a challenge at all, but contact of any kind these days seems to yield a penalty. Martin Atkinson plays homer and points to the spot.

Lampard, having a poor game, still has the bottle to smash the penalty high into the net.

United rally, as they always do. Keep passing the ball. A fine move leads to a scramble, Fabio is denied. Chelsea respond in typically professional fashion, get the ball in the corner up the other end during stoppage time, and as United's frustration boils over, Vidic gets a second yellow for a foul on Ramires.

What it means for us
Arsenal now trail by four points. They hold a game in hand. Because they have a home game against United to come, if Arsenal win all their games, they will win the title.

Arsenal will not win all their games. But United do face an apparently tough visit to Liverpool this weekend. If Arsenal can hold their nerve and dispel the negative vibes at home to Sunderland, things might get interesting. Still, the talk of this as being one of the closest Premiership title race may prove premature.

If United play like they did tonight, I think they could batter Liverpool. Much of the intrigue derives from the return of Kenny Dalglish, and United's closing in on their 19th league trophy, which would outstrip Liverpool's record. But Liverpool remain quite a bad team, and are in the process of trying to bed in new strikers. I have a feeling it won't be as difficult a game for United as people are assuming.

And even if the league is "in Arsenal's hands"... could you really call that a safe pair of hands, especially after Sunday's debacle?

Van Persie is out for "at least three weeks". Don't expect to see him again this season. Just like last time, it seems Arsenal will visit the Nou Camp in depleted shape, and the task would have been hard enough with a full squad to choose from. That micky mouse trophy looks more desirable by the day.

No comments: