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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Arsene Wenger's hidden gem

Arsenal
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Arsenal show much-needed grit

Liverpool have long been lambasted for being a team with an unhealthy reliance on their two star men, but it could be argued that the same damning accusation could be thrust in the direction of Arsenal.

While Rafael Benitez's faltering side have rarely looked a force when either talismanic midfield skipper Steven Gerrard or striker supreme Fernando Torres are on the sidelines, this was an occasion when Arsene Wenger's side needed to prove they could cope without the influence of the two stars who help to turn them into something more than ordinary.

Arsenal will have to get used to being without one of their 'special' players as Robin van Persie has been condemned to the ranks of the long-term absentees, yet the absence of captain Cesc Fabregas for this game against Hull was an additional burden that Wenger's side were forced to overcome as the injured Spaniard shivered on the bench in the freezing North London conditions.

Even though Wenger and Benitez continue to insist they have the strength in depth to plug the holes when the 'top two' are out of action, reality has rarely backed up the words of managers whose convictions in their own beliefs has led them down a few dead ends in recent years.

So it was left to the less than convincing Eduardo to lead the line, with Arsenal's fluid midfield unit charged with the task of filling in for the irreplaceable Fabregas as Phil Brown's side provided a familiar obstacle for the home team. Wenger is used to seeing opponents employing wrecking ball tactics at the Emirates Stadium in a bid to stunt their fantasy football, but as this latest example of attack vs. defence got underway, the guile of Fabregas was clearly missed.

That said, a revived Hull deserved credit for closing down every pass and making the most of what they had to offer, the success of their tactics did little to provide a spectacle to the watching hoards in the opening 45 minutes. Stephen Hunt and Craig Fagen turned in tireless performances, halting the likes of Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin as they tried to weave their magic.

That was before a moment of petulance appeared to give Arsenal the spark they were looking for. Nasri's needless stamp on Richard Garcia could have seen him take an unnecessary early bath, but referee Steve Bennett decided to issue a yellow card instead of a red and moments later the official handed out the free-kick that changed the mood of this game.

Abou Diaby was fortunate to be granted a foul as he challenged for the ball on the edge of the box, yet Denilson sparked the Emirates Stadium into life with a free-kick worthy of his Brazilian passport. It was a sumptuous effort that barely belonged in this hitherto uneventful fixture, but we could be thankful for a moment that lifted the tedium.

The angst being shown towards Nasri by Hull showed little sign of waning as the players disappeared down the tunnel, but Wenger will have appreciated that his team had been well below their best on a day when he opted to leave the creative talents of the fit again Theo Walcott on the bench.

Then this game was decided in three second half minutes as Giovanni missed a penalty harshly awarded against Mikael Silvestre, before Arsenal belatedly found their rhythm to score the second goal that ensured Arsenal would move to within two points of a faltering Manchester United, with a game in hand still up their sleeves.

A silky move ten minutes from time finished with a glorious goal from Diaby, but you couldn't help but feel for a Hull side who deserved more than the thumping they were on the end of. "The game was decided on two key moment and we have come out second best on both of them," argued Hull boss Brown. "If we could have got to half time with a clean sheet, things could have been very different, but it wasn't to be. I think the final scoreline flattered Arsenal a little."

Most of us in the press seats limped back to the press room with numb feet to meet with Arsene Wenger, whose comments were always likely to be pushed to the sidelines on a day when the sacking of Mark Hughes at Manchester City dominated the headlines.

"We have had two very physical games against Liverpool and Burnley and the key today was winning the game," said the Arsenal boss. "The first half performance was not so good, but we took over in the second half and Almunia's penalty save was the turning point of the match.

"What we have done in the last week is remarkable. We have two very tough away games and finished up with seven points, so we feel we are back in the race again."

It is hard to pass a conclusive judgement on Arsenal's title hopes on a day when logic went missing in the Premier League as for long period against Hull, they looked anything but champions. However, teams that go on to challenge to the title have to win on days when they are not at their best and this grinding victory may be a good sign for the Gunners immediate future.

News that Fabregas is due to return for the Christmas fixtures is a welcome boost, as you cannot help but feel that with Van Persie out for the next few months at least, Arsenal's hopes for the New Year will rest on the shoulders of their magical leader.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Abou Diaby

This leggy midfielder has long been compared to Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira and he did a decent job trying to cover for the absent Fabregas. He wins top honours as many of those around him were not at their best.

REFEREE MADNESS: Steve Bennett had a dreadful afternoon as he got the key decisions wrong, with his farcical award of a second half penalty to Hull almost as foolish as the decision to offer Arsenal the free-kick that changed the course of this game.

HANDY WORK: Arsene Wenger refused to shake hands with Hull boss Phil Brown the last time these two sides met, but there was a warm greeting between the two combatants both before and after this game.

ARSENAL VERDICT: A depleted Arsenal got the job done and they will need to win plenty more games like this if they are to push Chelsea close in the second half of the season. Their lack of strength in reserve must still be a major concern.

HULL VERDICT: Phil Brown deserves credit for taking himself out of the spotlight and allowing his team to rediscover their form in the last few weeks. They blew their chance to get something out of this game when Giovanni missed his second half spot kick.

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