Almunia keeps Arsenal in contention
No one punched the air. Not one player raised his arms to celebrate. Even the handshakes had a sober tone to them. Manchester United possess the advantage, but it is not merely professionalism that stopped them appearing complacent. A 1-0 home win in a two-legged tie can be that inconclusive.
This was the sort of performance to please United and the sort of result to mean Arsenal retain hope. The deficit is not insurmountable, the task not impossible. But when United were irresistible in the first half, this constituted an undeniable escape for Arsenal.
For 45 minutes, they were overpowered and overwhelmed. But for Manuel Almunia, United would have been over the horizon, propelled on their way to Rome in a blur of energy. The formula was for conspicuous commitment delivered with plenty of pace, power and persistence. John O'Shea scored the goal, but the blend of inspiration and perspiration came elsewhere. When a starting line-up includes a quartet of workaholics of the calibre of Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, it is an indication of the aim to play a high-octane game. The first few minutes constituted a statement of intent. Tempo, not technique, was the problem for Arsenal.
"It was a difficult game played at a high pace," admitted Arsene Wenger. "Manchester United started stronger than us. If you look at the clear-cut chances they were on top and the positive is that we are only 1-0 down. I am convinced you will see a different Arsenal team at the Emirates and we have a very good chance to reverse the result. We have the quality to do it."
Nevertheless, for the second successive season, they discovered the difficulties of encountering familiar faces in the Champions League. Arsenal may be a side better suited for continental combat, but this was a Premier League contest. The watching Michel Platini has long lamented the dominance of the English clubs, even with their multi-national squads. Tonight Sir Alex Ferguson employed domestic tactics on the European stage, albeit with a South American spearhead to the side. Tevez, an exercise in perpetual motion, epitomised United.
He energised team-mates and supporters alike. Ferguson does not always pander to the crowd, but two who are assured of the popular vote, Anderson and Tevez, were first selected and then serenaded by their sizeable fan clubs. Not that all of the Scot's decisions meet with unqualified approval. The Argentine's substitution with a quarter of the game remaining brought the umpteenth chorus of "Fergie, sign him up".
Few campaign for a contract for United's right-back, but he was the match-winner. "Now you ask me if we get to the final, if he would be in the team I would say yes," said his manager. "John is one of the great professionals of our time. He never complains and he's happy to play everywhere. He knows over the years he has not always been the number one choice."
This season, however, the Irishman is closing in on 50 appearances - not bad for a widely-derided odd-job man - and his comparatively meagre tally of United goals includes several in major matches. He lashed in from six yards after Michael Carrick retrieved Anderson's deep corner. His centre took a touch off Mikael Silvestre before falling for O'Shea.
It was part of an unfortunate return for the Frenchman. If United had pinpointed a weakness on the left half of Arsenal's defence, it was exploited. Silvestre, surely the only player Ferguson would have countenanced selling to Wenger, was flanked by a teenager making his 14th Arsenal start. United took it in turns to overlap on the right flank against the inexperienced Kieran Gibbs, who was afforded insufficient protection. Fletcher, O'Shea and Tevez all delivered from that wing, ensuring Almunia was kept occupied.
The Spaniard tipped Rooney's header away after barely 70 seconds. A superlative double save from Tevez followed, along with a point-blank block from Ronaldo. A couple of minutes after a tantrum that was spectacular even for him, the Portuguese went from infuriating to intoxicating in an instant. A wonderful dipping long-range shot the hit the bar as Ronaldo threatened to add to his winner in Porto with another strike of a similar standard.
But the second goal eluded United. "We've given ourselves a good chance," added Ferguson. "The tie is not over, obviously." But 1-0 was sufficient for an aggregate victory of the same score at this stage last season and, against England's most prominent French import, déjà vu is one phrase they would happily deploy.
In a particular unsubtle reminder to the visitors, United's on-pitch announcer spent the time before kick-off mentioning the words "champions of Europe" as frequently as possible either side of an unwanted airing of Status Quo on the tannoy. Given the amount of silverware they possess, United are keen on preserving the status quo. With a clean sheet in the capital next week, they just might.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Manuel Almunia - It is rare that a goalkeeper on the losing side is the pick of the bunch, especially when he is comparatively quiet in the second half. Yet Almunia's earlier saves resulted in justified praise from Wenger. "Excellent," he said. "He was top class in every sense - reading of the game, decision making, quality and sharpness." The last time Arsenal reached a Champions League final a goalkeeper - Jens Lehmann - deserved much of the credit. If they are to qualify for another, Almunia's excellence will be a major cause.
• MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Their major concern for the second leg may be the fitness of Rio Ferdinand, who departed after a collision with Edwin van der Sar. Their energetic display highlighted the case for Tevez ahead of his replacement, Dimitar Berbatov. Another substitute, Ryan Giggs, was spritely on his 800th appearance.
• ARSENAL VERDICT: They rarely troubled the United defence, coming closest when Emmanuel Adebayor volleyed over and then Nicklas Bendtner's header cleared the bar. Too few of Wenger's attacking talents made enough of an impact and perhaps the best of them, Samir Nasri, was at his most effective tracking back.
• ARSENE ON THE ATTACK: Ferguson pointed out that while United need to win against Middlesbrough on Saturday, Arsenal's game against Portsmouth carries rather less significance. "They could play Pat Rice right-back and Arsene centre-forward and it wouldn't matter to them," he said. Perhaps not, but it would be entertaining.