When does a victory feel like a let down? When you should have scored five! And so despite comfortably beating Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final on Wednesday, the night felt like something of an anti-climax. United were so dominant – and Arsenal so poor – that a 1-0 victory from John O’Shea’s suprisingly well-taken goal didn’t feel like a fair return on the night’s efforts. While a similar performance next Tuesday will surely see United through to the final in Rome on May 27, it could have been so much more. In fact through the veil of Arsene Wenger’s bullishness after the game there was the clear sign of massive relief. Arsenal should have been out of the tie after the first half – now they’re still in with a shout.
United go into tomorrow’s away match at Middlesborough having to rotate the squad with Giggs, Scholes, Park, Nani and Macheda all likely to start the match. Wes Brown will be on the bench as a minimum involvement. It’ll be United’s 60th game of a marathon camapaign, while Arsenal will be able to rest key players ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg at the Emirates. It’s an advantage for the London club but one that is to be expected with United chasing five major trophies up to this month’s FA cup semi-final defeat.
Still, despite the narrow win, there were plenty of positives for United against Arsenal. The back four were outstanding, Anderson put in his best performance of the season and the front three were energetic and dangerous. It was all too much for Arsenal’s midfield in particular, who were made to look as youthful and inexperienced as they really are.
There’s also goog news on the injury front, with Rio Ferdinand almost certain to be fit. While Arsenal will have Robin van Persie back for Tuesday’s game, the gulf between the two sides should be too much for the Gooners to bridge. You would have to back United to get an away goal, leaving Arsenal needing three to progress.
Whatsmore, United have some of the zip back that went missing for a month. It augers very well for the run-in. Victory tomorrow and the Reds will end Saturday six points ahead of Liverpool with four games to go. That will leave Fergie’s side needing just two wins and a draw from games against Wigan, Hull, Manchester City and Arsenal. Fergie would have taken that at the start of the season.
Do you miss the United versus Arsenal fizz of yesteryear? You know, the pizza throwing, tunnel shoving, all-out-21-man-brawling edge that seems to have been missing from recent encounters. It was that needle that gave the fixture its meaning over the past two decades. After all, while Arsenal aren’t traditional United rivals like City, Leeds and Liverpool, the tie had more than an air of ‘derby’ about it from the nineties to the early 21st century. But ‘Pizzagate’ onwards, when United ended Arsenal’s 49 match unbeaten league run, and the encounters have been tame. But with the clubs’ biggest meeting in a number of seasons taking place at Old Trafford this coming Wednesday, could old rivalries flare up again? Let’s hope so!
Perhaps its because messrs. Ferguson and Wenger have mellowed over the years that has removed some of the spark from the fixture in recent seasons. After all, when was the last time either of them engaged in petty media-orientated ‘mind-games,’ name calling and put-downs? The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s huge spending certainly gave both clubs a new focus. And, horror of horrors, the pair even agree on certain issues now, such as a common enemy in universally disliked Rafa Benitez.
Or maybe its that the players have changed too. Neither side has the spikey characters that fueled the personal vendettas of the past. Without the incendury personalities of Keane, Viera, Keown, Winterburn, McClair, van Nistelrooy and others, what’s left to fight about? After all Viera hated – literally hated – Ruud van Nistelrooy; Brian McClair tried to cut Nigel Winterburn in half; and Roy Keane scared the aforementioned Viera so bad he probably had to run home to his mummy for a cuddle. Moreover, Cesc Fabregas aside, there’s nobody on either side who – to paraphrase – would gladly start a fight in an empty room.
Most of all the edge has gone because the clubs aren’t rivals for the Premiership title anymore, with the North London side now more accustomed to fighting it out for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot than actual trophies. By the time the two meet in the Premiership at Old Trafford on May 16th the title ought to be as good as wrapped up.
The Champions League semi-final this coming Wednesday, however, could change all that. At last a United versus Arsenal fixture worth getting excited about!
As we head into Saturday’s match against Spurs, United are once again in pole position to take the Premiership title with Liverpool blowing their chance to beat a weakened Arsenal side at Anfield last Wednesday. Let’s be frank, Arsenal were woeful defensively and Liverpool not much better. While North London’s ‘finest’ helped themselves to four goals from four attempts on target, Liverpool simply bottled it. At this time of year, neves get to us all. Most of all the least experienced at winning titles. Now that’s a fact.
United meanwhile beat Portsmouth with a thoroughly professional but somewhat unsatisfying display on Wednesday night at Old Trafford. The visitors created little but as Sir Alex said in postmatch interviews, he “thought a goal was coming.” The match could easily have turned into a nightmare draw with a display that was muted at worst. Energy came mainly from the effervescent Wayne Rooney, until he was somewhat bizzarely shipped out to the left wing in the second period. But with just seven games to go, can United find the attacking fevour that will sweep them to the title and a possible quadruple?
This is no time of crisis. After all, the Reds have now won four and drawn two (penalties aside) of their last six matches in all competitions, despite the tabloid press’ best attempts to write off Sir Alex’ team. What we, the fans, would like to see now, of course, is the return of some trademark United fluency and flambouyance.
Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford this weekend could help. The team of Blanchflour, Ardiles, Waddle and Gascoigne has a history, much like United, of attacking attractive football. Will Harry Redknapp send out his team, with little to lose, to make a game of it? Let’s hope so. 11 men behind the ball rarely makes for a good game at Old Trafford – or in the current environment – a decent United performance.
Sir Alex has his part to play too. On Wednesday his side nominally lined up as a 4-4-2, with Ronaldo joining Rooney in attack. In reality Giggs and Fletcher tucked inside and United lacked width and penetration. With games coming thick and fast, and tired legs commonplace throughout the squad, rotation is inevitable. But it was still a conservative selection.
With Spurs, ‘Boro, City, and Wigan to come before Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford for the May 16 Premiership fixture United could well be out of sight before Wenger’s boys hit town. Better still, United could take the title with a flourish that day. Now that would be the right style.