Saturday, May 28, 2011

They Are A Bit Good, Aren't They

BARCELONA 3-1 Manchester United

So it's quite simple: Barcelona are the best team in Europe, and Manchester United are a very distant second.

And Barcelona can still thrill when they are not faced with a parked bus.

I wondered about the wisdom of United starting with the same eleven against Schalke, and their apparent plan to press Barca rather than sit off them.

For eight minutes or so, it looked a masterstroke. They pressed ferociously, Barca looked nervous, and it was all quite reminiscent of the beginning of the 2009 final.

Here, a couple of long, straight forward balls had Masherano and Pique looking jittery, and Valdes had to sweep up.

But as in 2009, Barca found a foothold around the 10 minute mark. This time it came not in the shape of a sucker-punch goal, but in dominance of the ball. The intensity of United's pressing inevitably dropped, but they still looked to release Hernandez early when the opportunity arose. The Mexican could not time his runs, though, and was caught offside four times in the opening twenty.

The convincing attacking was done at the other end. Xavi and Iniesta were, at times, conjuring yards of space where there seemed only inches. With Messi breaking into the box on more than one occasion, Ferdinand and Vidic were forced to make some heroic challenges. Pedro prodded a Xavi cross wide from close range, and Villa, looking in the mood, came very close with a couple of snap shots.

A goal was on the cards. It came when Iniesta released Xavi into the United half with a nonchalant pass. The captain for the night (Puyol was on the bench) advanced towards the area, waited patiently for the right option to present itself, and found Pedro pulling into acres on the right of the box. He took a touch and, with Van der Sar poorly positioned, passed the ball casually inside the near post.

The simplicity of the goal, coming as it did after a spell of Barca brilliance, must have unnerved United, and it took them a while to gather themselves.

But when they did, they scored a fine goal of their own. The chance stemmed, again, from determined pressing. Abidal threw up the line from deep inside Barca's half, but United squeezed effectively, and Rooney picked up the ball. A quick one-two with Carrick, who was playing well, freed up Rooney to drive into the box, and then another one-two, with Giggs, opened space for the shot, which he swept imperiously into the top corner.

United had been ruthless when their first big chance arrived. Barca were less efficient in front of goal. Messi found Villa on the right, and his return pass into the goalmouth was just missed by the little man.

It had been a very, very good contest up to half time. Barca the better side, but United playing very well, bringing out the best in their illustrious opponents. 1-1 and finely poised. It threatened to be a classic, but in the end wasn't, because Barca were a little too good. Their superiority for the first twenty-five of the second half was almost total.

They got back in front when Messi was left in space on the edge of the area. As Evra charged, a static Vidic inadvertently unsighted his goalkeeper, and Messi's sweet shot skipped past Van der Sar. United in response were playing very direct, still looking quite dangerous at times, but their attacks were only sporadic and they were not making any chances.

Barca, on the other hand, were on fire, and it looked as if only their profligacy and, at times, complacency, could stop them ending the contest. Alves was put through, and denied by Van der Sar. Then he crossed into the goalmouth, but an extravagant flick from ? did not provide the finishing touch and United scrambled clear. Xavi swerved in an effort from range that was well parried. At last, just when Nani was introduced and you wondered about Barca's freshness in the final twenty minutes, Villa curled in a magnificent third from the edge of the area.

After that, you would have been entitled to expect one of two things. Either Barca would score a couple more, or they would pass, pass, pass and frustrate United, who had already been chasing shadows for much of the second half.

It was a tribute to the mental strength of Ferguson's side that they dominated the remainder of the game, visibly still believing in their chances of executing an unlikely comeback. Barca tried to tip-tap their way to the final whistle, but United snapped into challenges as they had at the start of the match, and stormed forward in numbers. Rooney curled an effort onto the roof of the net; Nani cut in from the right but dragged his shot wide. Barca sat back in the last few minutes, made some defensive changes, and snuffed out the rest of what United had to offer.

The curtain came down on the season, and even if overall it was far from vintage, it had ended with a very good game, one that showcased the best of Barcelona.

Alex Ferguson showed real class, giving Guardiola warm congratulations.

In fairness, this United side had also shown their best, and the qualities which make them the best team in England. Theirs truly is a never say die attitude. But that, along with their own considerable talent, was not enough to even approach the greatness of an amazing Barcelona.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fragments of a Big Match Preview


United- will they look to press Barca? Or sit deep?

Jonathan Wilson uses stats to say Barca have become less committed too attack, more inclined to sit deep. They certainly use possession as a means of defence as much as attack. Is it making them boring to watch?

Then again, not really their fault that most teams aren't playing exciting football these days.

Are United good enough? More specifically, will the centre of their midfield be good enough? Apparently, it will be Carrick-Giggs again. No place for Fletcher? Frankly, I'm shocked. Maybe he's not quite fit enough. I guess there would be nothing as useless as a half-fit Darren Fletcher.

"The same team they brought to Schalke". That's the word on the street. Good and all as United were that night, Barca could never be as limp and lifeless as the Germans were. And while a similar team swept Chelsea aside in the "title decider", Ancelotti's team were likewise impotent, looked almost unmotivated- amazing for a game of that magnitude.

All of which points to the biggest worry for United fans- that their team simply has not been tested sufficiently this season to prepare them for the test to come.

United can confidently ask questions of their own.

Even if Barca have a near-monopoly on possession, will this work to United's advantage? Can Barca's backline deal with the pace of Hernandez? Is Mascherano a good enough centre back, if indeed he does play there? And whoever plays left back for Barca- can they cope with the rampaging runs of Valencia?

Will United's apparent physical advantage at set pieces come into play?

First Goal= Vital: a cliche, but especially true of this game.
United score it- Barca forced to press- spaces left for United to exploit on the break.
Barca score it- they feel the freedom to pass the ball to death until United leave some gaps.

Sterile Domination was the term Wenger used to describe it. A couple of question marks still hang over the anointed ones. Their behaviour in recent big matches makes a mockery of their own haughty principles. But more importantly, as Wenger implied, they often leave something to be desired on the level of spectacle. Their adherence to possession is so strong that it arguably blunts their creativity. For instance, for all their superiority over Arsenal in the Camp Nou, they only really started to open Arsenal's fragile rearguard up after Van Persie had been sent off. At the Bernebeau, too, the goals came against 10 men.

They are undoubtedly the best team around at the moment- nobody should debate that- but the smugness of Xavi and their other footballing philosophers is hard to swallow when too often, their matches are strangely dull.

Still, being a biased Arsenal fan, I hope they give United a pasting.

Unfortunately, my sickening gut feeling is that this will be United's night... despite the laughter induced by this from football365:

United have had plenty of valuable time in which to fine-tune their preparations for the Wembley showpiece and many hours have been devoted to '11-a-side practice games between the first team and squad members lining up as Barcelona.' It is understood that Michael Owen has taken up the role of David Villa, while Paul Scholes has imitated Andres Iniesta and 'Portuguese winger Nani has performed the 'Messi' role in training, replicating the Argentine forward's movement in the final third of the pitch.'

If they wanted a shite impression of Barcelona, why didn't they just invite Arsenal to Carrington?

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Fulham 2-2 Arsenal

Didn't watch the game.

Saw the Arsenal goals.

Diaby produced maybe the 4th telling pass of his career, after exchanging with Chamakh, and Van Persie scored yet again.

Either side of that, Sidwell put Fulham in front, then Zamora put Fulham in front again.

Late on, Theo Walcott ran unchallenged into the Fulham box and angled a shot past Schwarzer, in off the far post.

More dropped points, but it wouldn't have mattered a shite because Man City did their job, beating Bolton comfortably to secure 3rd place.

The more interesting games were at the foot of the table. At different times, Wolves, Wigan, Blackpool and Birmingham were all going down. In the end it was the latter two that fell through the trap door.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rock Bottom?

Or Will They Keep Digging?

There is now genuine ill feeling towards the club, and towards the manager, from a growing number of fans.

The fans are being asked to shell out more money to watch the insipid, overrated sideways passing exhibitions that Arsenal have been churning out for most of the season.

There is a commonly held assumption that whatever his failings, Arsene Wenger is at least trying to do things the "right way". This is true in a financial sense (although he really could do with not bumping up the contracts of frankly awful players and instead spending some money on reliable replacements). But in a footballing sense, I think it's time we admitted there is nothing superior in the way Arsenal play football at the moment.

I don't find it exciting or aesthetically pleasing, not most of the time, and it is certainly not effective. You might say in his defence that Wenger has won trophies in the past, but he has not done it playing this kind of football.

I have said it numerous times, the differences in style between his successful teams and the team he has since built are glaring. The current outfit has none of the power or the pace of the unbeaten side. One might suggest that they keep possession better, and the statistics would probably back that up, but how often are Arsenal allowed possession by the opposition, in the knowledge that they can sit deep, stifle Arsenal's narrow, predictable passing, and strike on the break.

The fact is, Aston Villa needed attack only twice to win that game on Sunday. And that is a very familiar situation. Clearly, Arsenal's style is often self-destructive.

The team's general attitude to defending, or indeed their aptitude for it, exacerbates the problem. They are too lazy or not good enough. Or not taught how to be good enough. Villa scored two goals in the first fifteen minutes at the Emirates, and they scored them with embarrassing ease. By all means, praise the movement and finishing of Darren Bent, but also ask whether Manchester United, Manchester City, or Chelsea would concede two goals in succession like that.

The irony of Arsenal's 'style' is that while they are so often accused of being 'overly intricate' in their own attacking approach, they are themselves consistently vulnerable to direct, simple attacks. You never get the feeling that a team has to put an excellent move together to score against Arsenal.

Why is that? The blame rests at the manager's door. You may say that the defenders are not doing their jobs, and there is an element of truth to that. Squillaci has been woeful almost every time he's taken to the pitch. Koscielny is accident-prone, and Djourou has fallen out of form since the Carling Cup final. But ultimately, it is Arsene Wenger who has brought these players together and placed trust in them, after this time last year admitting that Arsenal needed to sort out the defensive side of their game.

I haven't even mentioned the lack of protection the defence gets. Or the fact that they continue to be comically inept at defending set plays. I don't want to jump on the 'Wenger Out' bandwagon just yet, but at any other 'big club' in world football, this would simply not be accepted. He has failed to affect any improvement over the last twelve months. He and his team have only replicated the same collapse, surpassed it even.

There was an illusion of progress at one point this season, because after the winter, Arsenal were ostensibly in the running for all four competitions. Then the illusion was blown away. They had shown some decent form to that point, particularly away from home, but warning signs flashed at regular intervals. Certain games said that this team had not changed. Blowing a two-goal lead at home to Spurs. Going 3-0 down at home to West Brom. Losing to one attack at home to Newcastle. Doing the impossible, and blowing a four-goal lead, away to the same team. Capitulating miserably away to Manchester United.

Then, after the loss to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final, the players finally went to pieces. The devestating blows came in flurries with no respite in between. The 12th round bell rings out and, after being knocked to the canvass time after time, Arsenal are leaning on the ropes, bloody, bruised, comprehensively beaten.

And by who? No shame in going out to Barcelona in Europe, but losing a final to Birmingham, a side that may yet go down, is unforgivable. It seems now that United, Chelsea and City will all finish ahead of Arsenal in the league- and none of those teams invite easy admiration. A grudging respect is due perhaps, mostly for the ways in which they are different to Arsenal.

The tendency is for Wenger, and his apologists, to point to worse situations we could be in, to point to Spurs and Liverpool, perhaps, or point to our continued Champions League involvement. But I'm just tired, and I think a lot of people are now, of this constant 'grass isn't greener' rhetoric. I accept that Arsenal have no right to win trophies every year. But I don't accept the manager's right to ignore what needs to be done to give the team a better chance of winning something.

He even trotted out some line, after the Villa game, about how we're not battling relegation. I don't hear people in Ireland saying, "well, this recession is horrible but we should be happy with it because there are people starving in Africa". People adapt their expectations to their environment. Arsenal are a 'big team', they are playing in the Champions League, they are playing in a 60,000 seater stadium and fans are being charged exorbitant amounts to sit in that fucking stadium. I think it's fair for Arsenal fans to expect better than what they've got this season.

But if this is rock bottom, will Wenger see the need for change?

Even if he does, he's already made his job very hard for himself. It's unlikely, surely, that Fabregas will want to stay in the event that Barcelona stump up a fair offer. The Spaniard's career at Arsenal, if it is coming to an end, has been one great big missed opportunity. Instead of taking one of the best players in Arsenal's history and surrounding him with players that of the same calibre (or at least of some character), Wenger has made the boy captain and implicitly asked him to carry the motley crew of underachievers that constitutes the current Arsenal squad.

Now, Fabregas and, quite possibly, Nasri could leave for pastures new. That possibility illustrates the lie that is Arsenal's stability. There has been nothing stable about Arsenal's squad in recent years. Most of the continiuity comes in the shape of the younger players who aren't good enough and no other team would want, players like Diaby and Denilson. Otherwise, Arsenal have been consistently losing some of their better players and replacing them with substandard ones or with potential. You only need look at the players Arsenal had as recently as 2007/2008. Hleb, Adebayor, Flamini, Diarra, Gallas, Toure, Gilberto. All those have moved on. Previously, part of Wenger's greatness was in selling on some of his best players at big prices, and repacing them with cheaper, younger players of equal or greater quality. It seems he has lost that ability, because the Arsenal team now isn't close to being as good as that one in 2007/2008, and even they weren't good enough to avoid a late season collapse.

The summer beforehand, they had lost Thierry Henry, and it seemed to galvanise a lot of the players, who took on more responsibility and played with a greater freedom in the absence of the pompous Frenchman. Could something similar happen when Fabregas goes?

Fabregas is a different character to Henry. Watching Henry, particularly his treatment of Jose Reyes, you could understand how some players would feel liberated in his absence. Fabregas is probably a nicer chap but Arsenal do have the same tendency to look to him to dig them out of every hole.

There was some excitable talk after the recent United game about the birth of the Wilshere-Ramsey partnership. Both are very young. Ramsey is still recovering from a broken leg. Wilshere is already playing too many games for his age. But they are both going to be fantastic midfielders and that definitely will soften the blow somewhat should the captain leave.

I think that the emphasis should be on improving other areas, and altering the team's style. Insofar as the way Arsenal play does work, it works because Cesc Fabregas is a chance creating machine. I don't think there is anyone Arsenal could realistically buy who would effectively replicate what he does. But Arsenal need another striker, one who will score goals during those lengthy RVP absences, and ideally, one who can play with RVP.

They also need a fourth centre back, because Squillaci will surely not stay at the club.

They also need, I think, a midfielder that is strong enough to challenge Alex Song for his place in the team.

Ideally, some or all of these players will have extensive experience of being in winning teams.

If Arsenal lose Fabregas, there really is no excuse anymore- Wenger has to spend some money on the squad. If he does not see that necessity, I think his position has to come into doubt.

Even if he does spend, the characteristics of the current squad are worrying- do they come from the players or from the manager? Not being able to defend set plays, not possessing a winning mentality - these things surely derive from the manager to a large extent? In which case, do we need a change of manager almost as much as we need a change of playing staff?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This is a Low

Arsenal 1-2 Aston Villa

Another addition to the litany of listless displays at the Emirates this season. The home campaign ends in defeat.

Vermaelen returned but could do little about the ineptitude of one of Wenger's worst ever signings. Squillaci watched the ball sail over his head, left for dead by Darren Bent, who chested the ball down and volleyed it over Szczesny and into the net. 0-1.

Arsenal were 2 down inside fifteen minutes. Ashley Young received the ball, got a bit of extra time on it as Vermaelen slipped, and played in Bent, running off a static Sagna. Bent slipped the ball through the keeper's legs.

Arsenal had about eighty minutes to get back in it but whatever atmosphere there might have been in the ground became poisoned and the confidence of the players had plummeted still further. The deficiencies of the defence pile pressure on the attack, and an attack lacking both Nasri and Fabregas struggled to create. There were sporadic spells of danger but Arshavin and Walcott were both wretched and so the responsibility to score had to be shouldered again by Van Persie, who cracked a shot off the post after some typically inventive individual play.

When Wilshere chipped a lovely ball through to Ramsey, the Welshman chested down and lined up a shot, but Richard Dunne slid back and did enough, perhaps illegally, to stop him from finishing. No penalty the decision.

Half time, Squillaci replaced by Chamakh, with Song dropping back to partner Vermaelen for the remainder. At last, a return to something like a 4-4-2, although Van Persie frequently dropped deep. There were more bodies in the box when Arsenal attacked, but they still struggled to make the pressure tell. Song was having one of his off days (complacency?) and nearly let Bent in for a hat trick goal by miscontrolling what should have been a harmless Villa pass.

Eventually, Chamakh found the net with a close range header; it was disallowed for what the referee saw as a push by the Moroccan. Already booked, Petrov should have seen red for a late tackle.

Late on, Van Persie scored from close range after a bit of a scramble. Not enough. Bendtner had replaced Arshavin on the left wing and tried his best but it is pretty pathetic watching a glorified target man plod along the touchline and then be told that this is a team that has lofty ambitions.

The final whistle was greeted by a mix of Villa cheers and Gooner boos and the sheepish looking Arsenal players, including Fabregas, embarked on a lap of dishonour around the half empty ground. Will the captain play for Arsenal again? You couldn't blame him for wanting out.

Now, amazingly, if Manchester City win their final two games, Arsenal will finish in 4th and have to play the qualifying round of the Champions League. The collapse continues- will it be arrested next season?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An Envious Look in the Direction of Old Trafford

19 titles, Liverpool off their perch, it is only a matter of time now.

Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea

Some expected a titanic, top of the table clash. I never expected it to live up to that billing, and it didn't.

Chelsea have never approached the attacking excellence they often reached last season. They were on a good run, in terms of results, but that owed a lot to opposition weaknesses and to huge chunks of luck against Tottenham. Still, though many of their players are past their best, their application and professionalism puts Arsenal to shame. After their rotten mid-season run, they have reeled the Gunners in and very nearly did the same to United. That deserves a lot of credit- they have had to grind out a lot of difficult wins.

They were never close at Old Trafford. Terry and Luiz were caught out by a direct United move in the first minute. Hernandez slotted past Cech. Vidic headed another one in from a Giggs cross not long after.

Lampard's second half goal looked to have given Chelsea hope, but they never built any momentum, and nearly all the good chances were at the other end. United must have been nervous but they did not show it. They held out comfortably and their celebrations at the final whistle showed that they know the title is in the bag.

It was a very good way for United to reassert their authority. They had already beaten Chelsea twice in Europe and here they did it again and were superior in every department. United's midfield remains a bit of a mystery. Looking at it on paper, you would expect them to be outpassed and outrun by teams a lot more often than they are. A couple of seasons back, one would have backed Essien, Mikel and Lampard to overpower Giggs and Carrick, but Essien and Lampard are poor shadows of their previous selves. Giggs is enjoying the mother of all indian summers.

Drogba, once so powerful, now looks one-paced, lacks the explosive flourishes of yore. Torres is, it seems, a busted flush, unless they can fix him in the summer.

Malouda and Anelka have both had poor seasons. It's a wonder that Chelsea have come as close as they have because, looking at their squad, it's hard to name a single player who has been as good this season as last.

It's a drum I've been beating for some time, and here we go again: it's a weak Premiership- United are worthy Champions, the best team, but not all that much better than a Chelsea side in clear decline. Things should heat up next season because there is obvious scope for improvement, and a palpable sense of momentum, at both Liverpool and Man City.

For now, we should salute the soon-to-be Champions. They have suffered a lot of criticism this campaign, but ultimately, Arsenal, City and Spurs should get the stick. If this United team is so sub-standard, then those three teams should at least have challenged properly. City and Spurs never theatened to do so, and Arsenal collapsed in embarrassing fashion once the season reached the home straight.

United lack a dominant midfield and their away form has been patchy, at best, but they have continued to play dynamic, exciting, attacking football more often than not. Their game often thrills in a way that Arsenal's very rarely does. They may not keep the ball as well as other teams but they attack at pace and that is an art that Arsene Wenger seems to have forgotten.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The More It Stays The Same, The Less It Changes

Stoke 3-1 Arsenal

This was a rank display. Although not as spectacular as the collapse at Wigan at the arse end of last season, it had the same stale, end-of-a-fruitless-season vibe. Nothing to play for. Not even, it seems, professional pride.

Stoke were not very good, but comfortably good enough to beat a limp, lifeless Arsenal.

Arshavin got a lot of stick for helping give away the first goal. His team were not in grave danger as Jermaine Pennant held the ball in an apparent cul de sac near the corner flag. Arshavin stupidly pushed him over.

It's pretty absurd, though, that giving away a free kick is seen as a hanging offence. It was stupid, no doubt, because Stoke are dangerous from set plays. But here's a novel idea: how about, after all these years of "coincidental" underachievement, Arsenal learn to defend set plays?

Pennant swung a great ball in, Djourou was easily given the slip by Kenwyne Jones, and the ball bounced off the striker and into the net.

Pennant got the second himself. After a decent run he fired in a shot from distance. It was given a dipping trajectory by a slight deflection, and Szczesny failed to stop it.

Arsenal made changes at half time. Arshavin was scapegoated, as he often is. The manager pampers the substandard young players that fail to repay his faith, but because he did not make a star out of Arshavin, he has never shown favour to the Russian. Ramsey, ludicrously booed by the neanderthal home fans, also departed. Chamakh and Bendtner came on, leaving Arsenal with three out-and-out strikers on the pitch, plus Walcott. The changes had little effect.

Van Persie did provide yet another goal late on to provide a fleeting sense of hope, extinguished when Djourou pissed a clearance straight to John Walters, who made no mistake from close range.

It was a pretty abject way to destroy any feelgood factor after the United game. Maybe that's for the best. Arsenal have been poor for most of the season, especially the second half. They have produced a few good performances in that time, most notably at home to Chelsea and Barcelona. They failed, however, to build on the commitment of those displays. They failed to replicate it, because they either don't want it enough, or are not good enough, or a mixture of the two.

The game against Stoke did not have anything riding on it, so complacency was more understandable, if not acceptable. But the fact is Arsenal's season has been peppered with such displays, even when they were still supposed to be fighting for any of four trophies.

The tiresome talk continues, from both players and manager. 'Arseblog' has drawn attention to the fact that the players were admitting their own culpability in terms of character and commitment and the lack of it as long ago as the autumn of 2008. How many pay rises will these same players get before they are finally kicked out? 'Arseblog' also points to a comical quote by Wenger, who says that an inability to defend set pieces is an easy problem to remedy.

Arsene Wenger's team has had that problem for years. If it is easy to remedy, then where is the remedy? He has been a great manager for this club, and I hate to come across as negative (again), but frankly, he's looking and sounding more and more like a clown. His decline, and that of his team, shows no sign of stopping.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Small, Good Thing

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

At last Arsenal won a game, but along with the obvious pleasure of beating United, there was a palpable sense of 'what might have been'. In truth, it was the visiting side who were under more pressure, despite Arsenal's wretched form. Had Arsenal still been within touching distance of the title, would they have won that game? We'll never know for sure, but I doubt it.

The first half was familiar fare. Arsenal had most of the ball, without being particularly incisive. United, despite fielding both Rooney and Hernandez, sat back and tried to strike on the counter. It's a tried and tested routine for them, but this time they lacked punch on the break. Their only notable foray saw Fabio released behind Clichy on the right of the area, but he was left without a target in the middle, and was crowded out.

Arsenal passed the ball well though they did not create many clear cut opportunities. United left themselves open in the wide areas at times, as a result of their narrow defensive shape, but too often Sagna and, especially, Clichy crossed poorly (although the latter did find Walcott with a wicked low cross that the winger diverted over the bar).

It was Walcott himself who produced what should have been the most telling ball of the match, only for a brazen, unpunished piece of cheating from Vidic to take the ball off Van Persie's head. As the cross arrowed into the goalmouth, the flailing Serb raised an arm and deflected the ball beyond the striker. It was not the most obvious transgression to most in the stadium, but the linesman had a decent view and really had little excuse for not seeing it.

Half time: Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness raved about Arsenal's play, which I found a bit excessive. They had been decent on the ball but had rarely looked like scoring. The most obvious difference from previous Arsenal-United games was that United were toothless in attack themselves. This was probably the result of a few factors. Song sat back and marshalled Rooney very well, allowing Wilshere and Ramsey, in for the injured Fabregas, to do most of the prompting. Hernandez struggled to time his runs against Arsenal's high defensive line. Nani and Park were ineffective. And maybe Arsenal were a little less naive and accident-prone than they've often been.

Also, it's worth pointing out that United may have been conflicted as to whether they should attack in search of a win that would place one hand on the trophy, or sit on the draw. At the start of the second half, United did play in a more adventurous fashion. Rooney had a free kick clawed out, and Hernandez was a cunt hair away from burying Nani's curling cross in front of a relieved Szczesny at the near post.

If Arsenal were consciously sitting back themselves in the hope of finding more space in attack, it worked. Just after Valencia had entered the fray in place of Anderson, Song cut out a forward pass in the midfield area, and Ramsey released Van Persie down the right. The Dutchman backed Evra into the area, did his usual twisty-turny-thing, then, almost too late, saw that Ramsey had arrived on the edge of the box in acres. Carrick at last saw the danger, but Van Persie's pass was well-weighted, so that the Welshman could shoot first-time. He placed it beautifully into the corner, through the legs of Carrick and past Van der Sar's dive, and Arsenal had gained the lead with their first shot on target.

Then another game started. Arsenal sat on their lead as if George Graham was in the dugout, although without, needless to say, the defensive nous you would associate with that name. United attacked almost relentlessly, but in a fairly ragged fashion. When Carrick was replaced by Owen, they had no real midfield presence. Arsenal broke on them at times but looked too nervous to find a telling through ball or cross or shot to finish United off.

There was panic when Rooney got a lucky break of the ball, attacked Arsenal's box and found Nani to his left, but Szczesny stood up to his fairly tame effort. The biggest escape came when Rooney flipped a ball through for Owen, who had got the wrong side of Clichy. The hapless left back stamped on Owen's calf, fairly blatantly, and sent the striker tumbling, but appeals were waved away, and Arsenal saw out the remainder. Koscielny came out with particular credit, as he did in the home game against Barcelona. He seems more comfortable dealing with top class teams than with the agricultural ones who subject him to aerial bombardment.

United could point to the penalty decision but they had enjoyed more luck up to that point. Vidic should have conceded a penalty and seen red for his illegal intervention. Chris Foy kept getting in the way of Arsenal passes, and even booked Alex Song for an obviously clean tackle on Evra.

Arsenal have a victory that might mean more next season than it does now. All it means now is that yes, they probably should have won the title. United are so weak on the road, and have never really played like Champions elect. Nobody has. United have emerged by default, but I expect them to confirm their status as best of a relatively bad bunch with a win over Chelsea at Old Trafford next weekend.