Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Arsenal v Manchester United, May 5, Champions League

United should have had their place in the final sealed and settled even before we kicked off at the Emirates. Almunia and profligacy on United’s part had resulted in the Gunners chasing a mere one goal deficit and Arsenal are up there as one of the teams who should not be given a chance to recover. All three outcomes were distinctly possible and home advantage could potentially have had a strong influence in the result.

Arsenal sure started like they meant business. Some very slick passing resulted in a continued siege of the Red Devils’ goal, though Van der Saar was yet to be tested. Then came a moment where Arsenal’s vulnerability became suddenly evident. A long ball clearance found Ronaldo in the Arsenal box and he fended off three defenders before successfully controlling the ball and then setting up play for a half chance at goal. No damage was done but it was clear that whenever Man U did get into dangerous positions, they would have much more teeth. Just then, I remembered an Arsenal-Man U encounter from last season where Asenal kept playing pretty but Manchester United kept threatening on the break with some brilliant crosses into the box. Before too long one of them ended with a finish and for all their pretty play, Arsenal were behind. That game had ended 2-2 with some late drama, but my current thoughts were limited to expecting Arsenal to concede soon.

And soon enough they did. Once more Ronaldo found the ball, centered it for Park and while poor Gibbs slipped, making life easy for Park, Arsenal had invited enough trouble to not have the defense of poor luck. Now Arsenal had to score three and already you could sense a look of helplessness in the players’ faces. After Ronaldo scored from a free kick (which was a debatable free kick to get and which Almunia should have saved ), the Gunners just gave up. Within ten minutes of the second half, the match was beyond their reach and while they put up the charade of a fight, they never looked determined enough for a fight back.

There was a beautiful counter-attacking goal after a Vidic clearance was met by Ronaldo, carried by Park, taken wide and then played in by Rooney and finished by Ronaldo. There was also a consolation goal from a penalty for Arsenal after Fletcher was red carded. He got the ball but he also brought Fabregas down. Opinion has been divided over whether it was a red card or not. Most of the media (English) has been screaming it was so obviously not, while Graham Poll, retired referee and hence with the maximum credibility has apparently said it was. So there.

Wenger later described the 1-3 rout as the worst night of his career, but it was not a night that crept up suddenly. At the beginning of the season, Arsenal produced some good results against their direct rivals but dropped far too many points against the minnows. Now they have been on a great run against teams lower in the league than them, but in the last three weeks have been outplayed by Chelsea, Liverpool and United. Even though they sneaked in a draw against Pool, their fragility against teams that can match them in skill and outdo them in strength is evident. It may require the abandoning of the youth policy and ideology of Monsieur Wenger, but the arguments in favor of such a change are strong and many and oft repeated. And in the abandoning of the Galacticos policy by Madrid, Arsenal do have a precedence where a declared approach to success is abandoned when the targeted success is so obviously out of reach. Will Wenger heed?

Man U and Sir Alex – Just brilliant. It is difficult to pick a Man U player who did not have a great game. Ronaldo was at his best – smaller on the show boating doses and very large on impact, Rooney is just continuing to outdo Vidic’s bid as United’s player of the year, Anderson, Fletcher, Park…name them and they were all worthy of being finalists. Which they all are going to be now, with the unfortunate exception of Fletcher.

I hope it will be against Barcelona, but the outcome of tonight’s game is far from certain. I expect Chelsea to play exactly as they did last week and would not be surprised to see them nick it by a goal. Unless, Barca score early…then it will be fun.

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