Man United 2 (Ronaldo pen 54, Hargreaves 72) Arsenal 1 (Adebayor 48)
If ever there was a week to demonstrate the story of Arsenal’s season, it has been this one. Two excellent performances domestically and in Europe, two hard fought games, two games in which the initiative was firmly held, and in the end, absolutely nothing to show for it.
On another day United would’ve been comfortably beaten, but this wasn’t ‘another day’. It hasn’t been ‘another season’. It has been a season of fantastic football, followed by an unravelling which can be attributed to a variety of causes, not all as straightforward as ‘too small a squad’ or ‘bad luck’.
The first half yesterday was goalless, but only because of poor finishing and excellent keeping. Jens, in goal for the injured Almunia, made a couple of fine saves from Rooney, while Adebayor was having an off day in front of goal, set up time and time again by the excellent Cesc and Hleb.
The second half began perfectly, if fortuitously. Van Persie fooled the defence with a short free kick, the ball ended up coming to Cesc, whose shot was blocked, only for Van Persie to pick up the loose ball and fire in a perfect cross to the near post. Ferdinand left it to Van der Sar, and Adebayor nodded in. Or so we thought – replays clearly showed the ball went in off his arm. Curiously, not one United player appealed the very obvious handball.
Then came a critical couple of minutes. First, Ferdinand nearly scored an own goal from Adebayor’s cross, and when United broke, Gallas handled Carrick’s innocuous and mistimed pass into the box. There was no danger, no reason for Gallas to lean his arm towards the ball, but he did it nonetheless, and it was a clearcut spot kick – no complaints here.
How ironic it was that the man who was so critical of the way a penalty was conceded so soon after leading at Liverpool would be guilty of the same act just five days later. It was never in doubt that Ronaldo would score, even having to take it twice because of encroachment.
Despite continuing to create plenty of chances, there was a horrible inevitability about the winner. Gilberto was harshly penalised on the edge of the area for what looked like a very soft free kick, but what happened afterwards was sublime. You cannot blame anyone for not stopping Hargreaves’ free kick, it was arced over the wall and into the corner perfectly. Unstoppable.
Bendtner came on and had a couple of chances, forcing Van der Sar into one routine and one very good save, but once again we left with nothing. Even Ferguson accepted that his side were second best for long periods:
“They bossed the first half and we looked nervous at times because of what today meant. They were very unlucky to lose you’d have to say, they gave it their biggest effort of the season and were magnificent.”
Of course that’s easy to say after a victory, but it’s good to know there was some recognition there. Even the managers’ handshake at the end was less curt than usual.
As for the players, Clichy, Cesc, and Hleb was absolutely outstanding until their legs gave out, Lehmann was excellent in goal, and while Eboue was still woeful going forward, he was much improved defensively. I’m being kind to him today. Song was solid after a couple of shaky moments in the first half, Gilberto had his best performance of the season, and Van Persie looked menacing on occasions.
Yet it still ended in defeat. Wenger looked as down as he has been in years after the match, apparently not understanding where it has all gone wrong. And it is difficult to assess – the pundits may look for the easy answer and say that the squad is too thin and not English enough, and while the first of those is partly true, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Football is a game of very thin margins, and when it has counted since March, we’ve been a little short. There is nothing to suggest that extra players would’ve played better – I bet you cannot find another week in which a team has looked so spellbinding twice and lost both games. It just doesn’t happen.
The trouble is that we are giving the softest goals away, and at demoralising times – just after we’ve worked so hard to get our noses in front. Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge. We’ve scored first at all three in recent times, and lost the lot.
It isn’t even a matter of mettle, as some suggest. It isn’t that these players aren’t mentally tough enough, if they were fragile they never would’ve managed a performance yesterday after such a heartbreaking midweek. In fact, for all the talk of experience it has been the experienced members of the back line making as many critical mistakes as anyone.
The summer hasn’t started yet. There are four games left and they could at least give the season a happy ending. Then we can start talking about the tinkering that can be done in the close season.
Judging from the way we outplayed the team that are about to be crowned champions, we’re not as far away as some will have you believe.