United take spoils as Gunners misfire
If it is possible to distil a season into 90 minutes, then Arsenal managed it. They showcased skill and supremacy, fragility and, ultimately, disappointment in a compelling match.
It was Arsenal's year in a nutshell, providing a microcosm of their campaign from the encouraging start to the final, crushing sense of what might have been. Arsenal passed with a confidence, an assurance and a simplicity that endears them to fans and neutrals alike, but the title is probably destined for Old Trafford, and the trophy will definitely not reside at the Emirates Stadium next season.
At times, Arsenal played with the obstinacy that Arsene Wenger demonstrates in his arguments and his explanations for his transfer market policy. Yet they came up just short. As the Arsenal manager said: 'There was a very, very thin margin between winning and losing this season.'
There was in this game. Nicklas Bendtner's injury-time header thudded against the United post. The woodwork had already been struck, inadvertently, by Wes Brown, while Rio Ferdinand had come similarly, and equally embarrassingly, close to an own goal. On such incidents can titles be decided.
But, just as they have done in the title race, Arsenal lost a lead today, fading as Manchester United surged onwards towards the end. And, typically of their recent games, they departed with a sense of grievance. United levelled with a penalty given against William Gallas for handling Michael Carrick's pass. They won courtesy of a free kick, given to Patrice Evra against Gilberto. Wenger agreed with neither decision. 'We lose on a penalty we cannot believe but we are used to it now,' he added. 'And on the free kick, he did not touch him. They are two big decisions and we have to take it.'
They do. As significant as the decisions, was United's cool execution. Cristiano Ronaldo held his nerve on a twice-taken penalty - Ji-Sung Park compounding an utterly ineffectual display by encroaching when the first spot kick was taken - before, for once in his remarkable season, being demoted to the role of spectator as Owen Hargreaves stepped up to curl in the decisive free kick. 'I could tell it was his,' said Sir Alex Ferguson. 'No goalkeeper in the world would have saved that. He is very good from that distance.'
So he proved. United also illustrated their capacity to win when below par, something Arsenal struggle to emulate, after a substandard first half. They also displayed their strength in depth, with Ferguson introducing Anderson and Carlos Tevez, to considerable effect. Wenger's, in comparison, looked a patched-up team; though their performance was excellent, they are limping towards the end of the season in terms of available personnel.
It is a third successive year without silverware, but Wenger mounted a stout defence of his modus operandi, including his reluctance to buy in January. 'I'm not an idealist,' he insisted. 'I want to win trophies and we want to continue the way we play. I feel that we have done a lot for the Premier League this year. We do not feel there is a difference in technical quality between us and Chelsea and Manchester United.'
His faith in youth remains intact. 'I feel we have the quality and are young,' he added. 'I worked a lot with this team and these young players. I bought [Alex] Song two years ago, I played him today in a massive game and he has shown he has exceptional quality but he was not like that two years ago. I believe we played with quality and spirit and are really unlucky to lose this game.'
They did so despite a display of idiosyncratic defiance from one of the few who will leave Arsenal in the summer. Descriptions of Jens Lehmann tend to be prefaced by phrases such as 'love him or hate him'. Now, it appears, those in the latter category far outnumber those in the former.
Surplus to requirements and seemingly excluded, by his own actions, from Arsenal's unified front, this has marked a stark decline for the man who, two seasons ago, was the outstanding goalkeeper in the Champions League and among the finest in the World Cup.
Superseded by Manuel Almunia since early-season errors against Fulham and Blackburn, he has constituted Arsenal's resident in-house critic ever since. Damning judgments on Almunia's performances have followed, all with the obvious implication there was a superior alternative.
Sniping from the sidelines for much of the campaign, he was summoned from his own brand of internal exile for what may proved a valedictory appearance when Almunia developed a wrist injury. Yet for much of the match, he prospered, producing a hat-trick of outstanding saves from Wayne Rooney, all with his feet, and suggesting an aura of arrogance is a distinct advantage for a goalkeeper.
It was a memorable cameo in, for Arsenal, an encouraging season. But it was not quite enough.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Emmanuel Adebayor - Scored Arsenal's winner at Old Trafford last season and briefly threatened to repeat that with a well hidden handball from five yards out. Although he has been below par recently, he led the line intelligently, linking up well with the attacking midfielders and helping Arsenal flourish on the counter-attack.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson has started to favour a 4-5-1 formation for the biggest games. It has often worked, too, but they looked much more comfortable today after the arrival of Tevez and the reversion to 4-4-2. The midfield situation was further complicated, too: Park did not do enough to justify his selection ahead of Ryan Giggs but the dynamic Hargreaves produced a second influential display of the week.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Ferguson accepted they were the better side in the first half and did not deserve to lose, and it was hard to disagree. It was heartening to see a side with the ability to impose their slick passing game on United, but clean sheets continue to elude Arsenal. Whether the centre-back partnership of Song and Gallas was a one-off or a sign of things to come remains to be seen, but the Cameroonian at least looked a more solid option than Philippe Senderos. Deprived of Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby, Bakary Sagna, Tomas Rosicky and Eduardo, this was an accomplished display, but without the result they merited.
NOT SO FAB: It did not go unnoticed in the press room beforehand that, while Fabio Capello praised Theo Walcott for the scintillating solo run to set up Emmanuel Adebayor's goal at Anfield on Tuesday, the England coach had actually left by then. Had the unlamented Steve McClaren done likewise, he would have been pilloried.