Manchester United overcame a sluggish start and capitalized on Arsenal forwards’ profligacy to notch up their first away win of the season as an own goal from Kieran Gibbs and a clinical finish from Wayne Rooney was enough to see them past the Gunners 2-1 and jump to fourth in the Barclays Premier League table.
Manchester United-Arsenal clashes have provided many memorable encounters in the Premier League era: from Arsenal clinching the title at Old Trafford in 2002 in the “Battle of Old Trafford,” followed by Arsenal losing their unbeaten streak in the “Battle of the Buffet.” However, there has undoubtedly been a shift in power in the English League. Chelsea has overtaken Arsenal as the top dogs in London, and City has done the same to United in Manchester. Such has been the start made by these two traditional rivals — this weekend’s clash was the first time in 16 years that neither Arsenal nor United were in the top five when going against each other.
Even then, there was much to play for for both teams. At stake, a place in the top four with the race for Champions League qualification looking to go down to the wire this season. Arsenal, coming into the game with a 23-match unbeaten streak at home in the Premier League, welcomed back striker Olivier Giroud, who returned ahead of schedule following a tibia fracture earlier this season.
United on the other hand was ravaged by defensive injuries. With all of their starting back-four out injured, Chris Smalling on his 25th birthday led a back-three also featuring 19-year old Paddy McNair and 20-year old Tyler Blackett making their 4th and 6th appearances respectively for Manchester United.
Amidst further widespread injury concerns, United fans were happy to see Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, and David de Gea recover enough to start. Despite scoring the match-winner against Crystal Palace, Juan Mata had to be content with a place on the bench. Former Arsenal striker Robin van Persie started up front for United, while former United striker Danny Welbeck started for Arsenal with Giroud waiting for his chance on the sidelines.
It was Arsenal who got off to a blistering start with Danny Welbeck having two opportunities within 10 minutes to make his old club pay. However, with just a quarter of an hour gone, Arsenal’s best chance fell to Jack Wilshere. Pressured by Alexis Sanchez, de Gea made a poor clearance which eventually found it’s way to the Arsenal No. 10 but with only the goalie to beat, he hit it against David de Gea instead of going for the chip.
Things got worse for United as Luke Shaw had to be replaced by Ashley Young with less than a quarter played in the game. This was their 40th different injury with only a third of the season played. David de Gea was called into action frequently with Alexis Sanchez coming closest to breaking the deadlock. Both of United’s chances came from Angel Di Mari as he burst in from the right flank. On the first occasion, his curler bent beyond the far corner. On the second, he found his captain on the edge of the penalty box, but Rooney could only manage a toe-poke which was knocked wide for a corner.
Arsenal was fast off the blocks in the second half much like the first with Per Mertesacker and Danny Welbeck both coming close to giving the hosts the lead. However, 10 minutes after the restart, things went south very fast for Arsene Wenger’s men as Jack Wilshere had to go off injured.
Moments later, Ashley Young’s pass from the left caused confusion in the Arsenal defense with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny colliding with left-back Kieran Gibbs in an attempt to clear the cross. The ball fell to Valencia who put his laces though the ball. Though the shot was off-target, it hit Gibbs, still down from the hit by his own-goalie, and went in.
Completely against the run of play, United had the lead without even managing a shot on target. If that wasn’t bad enough, Szczesny had to go off injured. However, with the Emirates faithful egging them on, Arsenal recovered and with the introduction of Olivier Giroud, kept coming in waves, continuously testing the United defense.
As time went on, Arsenal pushed more men forward, leaving them vulnerable to the counter-attack. With less than 10 minutes to go, Di Maria found his captain free through the middle, and Rooney, the recently 100-capped England man, made no mistake, making it 2-0 for the Red Devils.
The referee gave the home supporters something to cheer, as 8 minutes were added on. However, the Gunners were caught on the break again, this time Rooney returning Di Maria the favor, only for Di Maria to send his effort wide. Five minutes deep into the stoppage time, Arteta dinked a ball over the United defense, which Giroud latched onto. His thunderbolt cut United’s lead to half and set up a thrilling last three minutes. All hopes of late drama were buried when Michael Carrick made a heroic full-length slide on the edge of the box to deny Santi Cazorla.
Arsenal would live to rue that the missed chances as this loss condemned them to their worst start since 1982. As for United, it was more a case of a good result than a great performance, although David de Gea and the young United defense gave a good account of themselves in a tough away match. With the likes of Falcao slated to return, United look good for a top-four finish.
At the top of the pile though, there is just no stopping Chelsea, as they already command an 8 point lead over Man City with second place Southampton looking toward a tough run of games.