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Superb United shatter Wenger dreams


ON the day that television coverage of football was taken into three dimensions, the Premier League title race reverted to a more familiar two.

Writing off Arsenal again may appear dangerous, given the way that they had fought their way back into the race since an emphatic 3-0 defeat by Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium two months ago, but this, if anything, was even more resounding, with Arsene Wenger's pretenders exposed by the brilliance of a Manchester United performance that was encapsulated by the verve of Wayne Rooney and a suddenly resurgent Nani.

On this evidence, after their most vibrant display of the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era, United will fight Chelsea hard for the title. Alex Ferguson, in buoyant mood, declared afterwards that he wants Arsenal to "batter" Chelsea when the teams meet at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but, perhaps for the first time all season, United have begun to show their traditional disregard for opponents. Keep playing like they did yesterday -- or against Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi-final last Wednesday -- and the pressure on Chelsea will grow.

As in the league game against Chelsea, as in the Champions League semi-final, second leg against United here last May, Arsenal were overwhelmed. Their late goal, scored by Thomas Vermaelen, did not bring the slightest consolation. They had trailed 3-0 since the 52nd minute, when United hit them on the counter-attack for the umpteenth time, with Park Ji Sung running clear to score, building on the two-goal advantage that came in four first-half minutes when Manuel Almunia pushed Nani's cross into his own net before Rooney, unstoppable at present, scored in irresistible fashion.

On occasions such as this, when their well-documented flaws are so brutally exposed, it is very easy to pick holes in the Arsenal team. They were devoid of character, devoid of fight and devoid of leadership, but what will trouble Wenger most is the way that his team were outclassed and outwitted. Whatever the characterisation down the years of Ferguson as an authoritarian figure, rather than a strategist, this was one of the most resounding tactical triumphs a manager could wish for.


Arsenal are devastating on the counter-attack, but, as was also proven in last season's Champions League encounter, they are remarkably susceptible to such tactics when deployed as well as United can. For Ferguson, that meant leaving out Dimitar Berbatov -- as he has done on each of his team's past five meetings with Arsenal -- and using a 4-3-3 formation in which Rooney led the line magnificently and Nani, so disappointing so often in his two and a half seasons with United, was outstanding on the right wing.

At times, so terrified did they look when United were in possession, it was almost as if some of Arsenal's players were wearing the same 3-D glasses that Wenger and Ferguson, to their hilarity, tried out in the tunnel beforehand as part of a television promotion.

Rooney has certainly grown in recent months into a player who terrorises opponents, but what Wenger cannot have expected was to see his defenders, most notably Gael Clichy, tormented so severely by Nani.

When Nani described this as the best performance of his United career, he was not kidding himself. Ferguson has suggested that shyness may be the reason why Nani has struggled to match the impact made by Ronaldo, his fellow Sporting prodigy, who is less than two years his senior.

But here the winger oozed confidence, taking on Clichy at every opportunity and making the most of the amount of possession he was served up by Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick.

A United goal had been on the cards and, when it came in the 33rd minute, it was no surprise that Nani was involved. Racing on to Carrick's pass, the winger beat Clichy to the ball and performed a piece of trickery to evade the token challenges of Samir Nasri and Denilson before chipping a cross into the six-yard box, where Almunia, backpedalling desperately, attempted to palm the ball over the crossbar and, to his team-mates' horror, got his angles all wrong.


Four minutes later it was 2-0. United have scored some wonderful goals on the counter-attack down the years and this was another. One moment they were camped in their own penalty area, defending an Arsenal corner, and the next they were breaking at pace, the ball zipping from Park to Rooney to Nani and then back into the path of Rooney, who, without breaking stride, swept a low first-time shot past Almunia.

Arsenal had recovered from 2-0 down to beat Bolton Wanderers in their previous home game, but by now they were looking the fragile, cowed bunch they always seem to resemble in defeat. Nasri lost the ball to Carrick near the centre circle and, as the United midfield player sent an intelligent pass over the top of the Arsenal back four, Park ran clear to score the simplest of goals. Ferguson danced on the touchline and his players congratulated each other on what was rapidly becoming a masterclass in the art of the counter-attack.


Arsenal were sad to watch. They have coped well in the absence of Robin van Persie in recent weeks, but, despite the occasional threat from Andrey Arshavin early on, they lacked the wit to pierce United's makeshift central defence. With Theo Walcott short of confidence after his introduction, there was simply no penetration and they ended up resorting to hitting high balls to Nicklas Bendtner and William Gallas, an emergency striker -- no doubt to the amusement of Martin O'Neill, who had taken umbrage when Wenger accused his Aston Villa team of similar tactics during last week's 0-0 draw.

There was a 79th-minute goal from Vermaelen, a left-foot effort that took a decisive deflection past Edwin van der Sar, but, beyond that, they had no answer.

On this of all days, the Premier League's most entertaining team looked one-dimensional, their limitations laid bare by a United side who are suddenly on the march again.