Fitter. Harder. Faster. Stronger. United outfought and outclassed Arsenal on a European night to remember at Old Trafford. Yet the Reds take only a one-goal advantage to the Emirates Stadium next Tuesday, and the road to Rome is not as straightforward as it perhaps could have been.
Sir Alex said before the game that he would happily take a 1-0 victory in this Champions League semi-final, first leg. And United can take heart from an outstanding display of vigour and verve. But after the mauling Arsenal received, the Reds boss can surely only conclude that the winning margin should have been greater.
Right from the off United’s players, backed by an absolutely incredible support, were revved up and right in the faces of the beleaguered Gunners. Carlos Tevez was rewarded for his match-changing second-half display against Tottenham at the weekend with a place in the starting line-up – and he played like he had a statement to make.
Sir Alex’s team selection suggested speed and energy were of the essence. And, spurred on by a fired-up Old Trafford crowd, the Reds made a blistering start, with Wayne Rooney forcing an excellent save from Manuel Almunia after just two minutes. Then Cristiano Ronaldo flashed a cross-shot across the face of goal. It was upbeat and high-tempo stuff, as expected. But Arsenal were nowhere to be seen early on against the hungry-looking Reds.
Tevez was snap-at-your ankles enthusiastic, Ronaldo and Rooney both looked lively and Darren Fletcher maintained his excellent recent form in the heart of midfield. For Arsenal, away from home and with Emmanuel Adebayor up front on his own, theirs was always bound to be a more patient approach. But even when their first spell of possession eventually arrived, they were booed and barracked into submission. United pressed on and after 16 minutes Almunia again came to Arsenal’s rescue. A brilliant interchange from Tevez and Ronaldo saw the ball worked out wide to John O’Shea, and the Irishman’s cross found Tevez’s run, but his shot was stopped at point-blank range by Almunia.
United were soon rewarded, however, in the form of the most unlikely hero: O'Shea. Carrick was lurking at the back post from the resulting corner, and his deflected pull-back found the Reds right-back six yards out and he thumped the ball home. As if the noise levels weren’t loud enough, the deafening celebrations carried far into the Manchester night. And there was barely an opportunity to catch your breath as the Reds went in search of a second.
Arsenal’s first attempt came just before the half-hour mark when Cesc Fabregas’ low shot was well held by van der Sar, but other than a five-minute spell of possession towards the end of the half, that was largely it.
Seconds after Fabregas’ effort, Almunia was called upon again; Tevez scampered down the right wing, skinned Kieran Gibbs and crossed for Ronaldo, whose powerful header was palmed away by Arsenal’s Spanish stopper. Moments later he denied Ronaldo again, this time a curled shot from the edge of the area. Were it not for Almunia, this tie could have been out of sight inside the first half.
United's frenetic tempo naturally dropped in the second half, Arsenal certainly had more of the ball than they had in the opening 45 minutes. The danger for United was that a quick Arsenal counter attack could yield that prized possession: an away goal. Adebayor went close just after the hour with a arcing volley from 30 yards out, but fortunately it went over. It was, if nothing else, a warning.
Sir Alex subsequently decided on a change with 20 minutes to go, replacing Tevez with Dimitar Berbatov, and Anderson with Ryan Giggs, remarkably making his 800th appearance. Tevez shook his head in disappointment at the decision – a gesture that may or may not be over analysed in the press, but in reality it was natural of any player withdrawn from such a high-profile and enthralling game.
Shortly after the swap, Ronaldo sent a rasping 30-yard shot crashing off the bar, then minutes later an effort from Carrick fizzed wide; Sir Alex must have been scratching his head with bemusement as to how his side were not more than a goal to the good.
The baying Old Trafford crowd sensed Arsenal's vulnerability and mercilessly shouted: 'attack, attack, attack'. United did just that, and Giggs had the ball in the back of the net on 78 minutes, but he was flagged offside. It was a tight call that won little home approval - largely because the officials gave very little United's way all night - but on this occasion they probably got it right.
Arsenal may see containing a rampant United as their main plus point – and they have much to thank Almunia for – but if the Reds play anything like this in North London next week, a trip to Rome surely awaits. This was a job well done, but only half done.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Manchester United [1 - 0] Arsenal
17' [1 - 0] J. O´Shea
1-0 J.O'Shea 17'
17' [1 - 0] J. O´Shea
1-0 J.O'Shea 17'