ARSENAL ripped the carpet from under the title challenge of Manchester United with a performance of such energy, commitment and panache that you have to ask the question: Why on earth couldn’t they do this before?
The statistics at the Emirates show Arsene Wenger’s side edged the match with an emotional 56th-minute goal from Aaron Ramsey, who was making only his second league start for the club since breaking a leg against Stoke in February 2010.
But in fact Arsenal’s midfield dominance against a strangely subdued United side was far more telling than Ramsey’s single strike, which was stroked home expertly from a Robin van Persie cut-back and celebrated just as wildly in west London as in the north.
The result leaves United only three points clear of current champions Chelsea with a home match against Carlo Ancelotti’s side next Sunday and extends a fascinating title race for at least another couple of weeks.
In fact, with Chelsea and United currently sharing the same goal difference, there could be different leaders by the time another weekend is over; although surely United won’t be as disappointing as this again.
For Arsenal it is probably all too late, six points behind with only nine more to play for, so there was a sense of frustration mixed in with the jubilation at the Emirates as the club’s long-suffering fans looked at their team and wondered what could have been.
What if Arsenal had been able to produce the same kind of energy, determination and fizz in home games against Newcastle, Blackburn, Sunderland or West Brom?
What if they had shown the same determination to see out a result against Liverpool, Tottenham or indeed in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham; and what if they had played so unshackled against Barcelona in the Nou Camp?
In common with previous matches between the sides the game was not without controversy as referee Chris Foy managed to upset everyone by missing two penalties.
The first came when United captain Nemanja Vidic clearly handled a cross from Theo Walcott under challenge from Van Persie on the edge of the six-yard box.
Had the indiscretion been spotted then Arsenal could well have been ahead earlier and Vidic would surely have seen his match ended prematurely.
But Foy ‘made up’ for his mistake by ignoring United’s pleas for a penalty right at the death when Gael Clichy raked the back of substitute Michael Owen’s leg, once again on the blindside of the officials.
In between those efforts, however, United could have no real complaint about the course of the game which was always heading in Arsenal’s direction.
Interestingly, almost as if to defy his critics, Wenger responded to claims his team is too inexperienced by fielding his youngest team of the season, average just 23 years and 296 days — the youngest team fielded by any club in the Premier League this campaign.
The line-up was missing captain Cesc Fabregas, who injured his thigh in training, and saw him replaced with 20-year-old Ramsey.
Injuries have been a regular feature of Arsenal’s frustrating year and by the end of the match they had also seen Samir Nasri limp off with a hamstring problem and Johann Djourou follow him to the medical room.
But on this occasion the inclusion of Ramsey worked in Arsenal’s favour the Welshman, partnered in the centre of midfield by teenager Jack Wilshere and Alex Song, outshone United’s Michael Carrick and Anderson, dominating large periods of the game.
Wilshere could, and should, have put Arsenal ahead early on when he rushed a fourth-minute shot and dragged it horribly wide while United’s best chances came through a deep-lying Wayne Rooney, who had a shot deflected wide before half time and a free-kick saved at full stretch by Wojciech Szczesny after the break.
But Arsenal’s winner came when the excellent Van Persie danced into the area and cut the ball back perfectly for Ramsey to side-foot a crucial goal in the title race.
United did at least find some energy and attacking threat of their own in the final minutes as Nani was denied by an excellent save from Szczesny and Owen’s unrequited penalty claim left Ferguson fuming.
But the day belonged to Arsenal.
As Wenger pointed out, had his team played in the same fashion during a six-day period that saw them concede a 97th-minute equaliser against Liverpool, throw away a 3-1 lead against Spurs and then lose 2-1 at Bolton, they could even have been sitting top of the Premier League today.
But therein lies the Frenchmnan’s dilemma; without pressure Arsenal are world-beaters — but with it they remain perennial bridesmaids.
And that’s why the Chelsea were yesterday’s biggest winners.
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