Arsenal 2 Manchester United 0: Success at last for Arsene Wenger against Jose Mourinho and, more significantly, fresh hope for Arsenal in their quest for a top four place.
With it, though, came further confirmation that while meetings between these two clubs were once season-defining, they are now little more than a subplot to weightier matters being decided elsewhere.
Fourteen times Wenger had confronted Mourinho in a competitive fixture and failed to get one over a manager with whom he had traded insults and, very nearly, blows. Finally the Frenchman has ended that run thanks to two goals in three second-half minutes, the first a deflected, long-range effort from Granit Xhaka quickly followed by Danny Welbeck’s header, his third goal against his former club.
That will inevitably give Wenger some degree of pleasure, more so because it meant his side keep alive their chances of qualifying for the Champions League for a 21st successive year. Those chances remain slim, with Arsenal almost certainly having to win their remaining four games whilst hoping one of the existing top four falter.
Yet while there was no doubt Arsenal deserved victory, it was clear United’s thoughts were elsewhere and the ending of their 25-game unbeaten league run, extending back to last October’s defeat at Chelsea, passed quietly. Where this fixture was once full of blood and thunder and backed with a sense that more than three points was on offer for the victors, on this occasion it was a frustratingly tame affair between two sides who demonstrated why they have failed to maintain a place in the title race.
Mourinho had warned this game came a poor second on his list of priorities this week and stayed true to his promise to rest players ahead of Thursday return meeting with Celta Vigo, making eight changes from the side that established a 1-0 first leg advantage in Spain last week.
Only Ander Herrera, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Matteo Darmian retained their starting places as the Portuguese brought centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones back into the side after a seven-week injury absence, while Axel Tuanzebe, the 19-year-old England U20 international, was handed a Premier League debut at right-back.
The consequence was that while Mourinho maintained his side deserved more from the game, they ultimately looked a tired and disjointed side, quickly running out of ideas when Arsenal took control in the second half and established a two-goal cushion.
The return of the rested players should mean they approach Thursday’s now crucial game in a different manner and the odds are stacked in favour of them reaching the Europa League final in Stockholm towards the end of this month, when they are likely to face Ajax. Stumble at either of those two hurdles, however, and Mourinho may have more reason to regret his side’s failure to make more of the chance to put pressure on a nervous Arsenal.
Wenger offered a restrained response to Arsenal’s defeat in the north London derby seven days previously, bringing in Danny Welbeck and Rob Holding for Olivier Giroud and Gabriel. The immediate signs, however, were that the changes had only limited effect, with United starting positively as Wayne Rooney flashed a header over the bar shortly before his pass sent Anthony Martial clear for an opening that came to nothing when the forward’s shot was blocked.
Arsenal eased their way into the game and both Jones and Smalling were called on to react quickly and block close range shots from Welbeck while David De Gea produced a good save to palm away Aaron Ramsey’s long-range shot.
The best chance of the half, though, fell to Rooney who moved onto an ill-judged back pass by Holding. Presented with two obvious choices — place the ball beyond Petr Cech or square for an unmarked Juan Mata — Rooney opted for a third and allowed Cech to make a relatively easy save. Mourinho’s frustration was apparent and there was little in the rest of the forward’s performance to win over his manager, or to counter the growing belief he is playing out his final days in United colours before a summer move away, probably to China.
The second half appeared set to mirror the first before Xhaka’s breakthrough. The midfielder lined up for a long-range shot and was helped when Herrera turned his back on the ball, deflecting the ball into a high arc that lifted it above and beyond De Gea in the 54th minute. Three minutes later, Arsenal had effectively killed off the game when Holding won possession well deep in United territory, moved the ball on to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose cross was misjudged by Smalling and powerfully headed home by Welbeck.
United’s response was marked more by bluster than conviction and Wenger’s success was assured.
Cech 7; Holding 6, Koscielny 8, Monreal 6; Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Bellerin 84), Ramsey 5, Xhaka 8 (Coquelin 76), Gibbs 6; Ozil 5, Welbeck 7 (Giroud 84), Sanchez 6.
Subs not used:
Ospina, Gabriel, Iwobi, Walcott,
Manchester United (4-3-3):
De Gea 7; Tuanzebe 7, Jones 7, Smalling 6, Darmian 6; Carrick 6, Herrera 6 (Rashford 61, 5); Mata 6 (McTominay 84), Rooney 4, Mkhitarayan 5 (Lingard 60, 6); Martial 6.
Subs not used:
Romero, Bailly, Blind.
A Marriner 7
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