Monday 24 September 2018

Arsene Wenger's final game at Old Trafford ends in heartache as Fellaini strikes in added time

Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1

Fellaini celebrates late goal and (inset) Wenger and Mourinho
Fellaini celebrates late goal and (inset) Wenger and Mourinho
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring his side's second goal

Miguel Delaney

It wasn't the ending to 22 years of rivalry with Manchester United that Arsene Wenger would have wanted, but you couldn't say it was without symbolism or a certain level of appropriateness.

The departing Arsenal legend for one last time felt the brunt of one of the qualities his great peer Sir Alex Ferguson imbued in this club, as a ‘Fergie-time' match-winner was scored. To add to it, substitute Marouane Fellaini's 91st-minute goal for the 2-1 victory also gave United that staple of the Wenger years as it confirmed a top-four finish.

That was still something that felt inevitable, and as much as United naturally celebrated the win and the Arsenal players lamented it - some of them pounding the floor - it doesn't change much about their seasons or how they'll be perceived. Jose Mourinho can fully concentrate on the FA Cup content that his side are back in the Champions League, Wenger was already fully concentrating on Thursday's Europa League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid, such was the makeshift nature of his starting XI.

It was really one of the days where events off the pitch were more interesting than those on it. And if that team put out by Wenger then ensured this was never going to be one of the Premier League's most memorable fixtures, the build-up did offer one of the competition's most genuinely touching moments.

There were the two old rivals - and now firm friends - standing together now, as Ferguson presented Wenger with a memento, that he held up to applause. Jose Mourinho was then beckoned forward by both managers to join them, and there was even the hint of a hug between the current United manager and Wenger.

That respect and creditable appreciation continued throughout the game, with Wenger even applauded back on as he came out for half-time. There was even the slight comedy of United mascot ‘Fred the Red' giving the Arsenal boss an affectionate pat on the back.

The occasion didn't dull the comedic edge of some of the United fans, mind, even if one attempt was a bit mean-spirited given the day and everything else happening. Immediately after Paul Pogba had opened the scoring with a close-range finish, and then when Fellaini finished it, sectors of the crowd began to sing ‘Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay'.

The first rendition was immediately countered by the visiting support who shot back with “Arsene Wenger, he won the league here”.

In truth, mind, it was one of only a few moments of bite on a day that often felt like more a testimonial for Wenger rather than one of the fixtures of his career that has most tested him. This couldn't have been further away from those ferocious battles around the turn of the millennium.

And that, of course, is down to more than his departure. It is as much down to why he is departing, even if it did not feel a day to revisit that.

That was also despite so many players revisiting their former club, and having some impact. Alexis Sanchez had played a central part in Pogba's goal, having had his initial shot from Romelu Lukaku's expert cross diverted. He still wasn't really at his rampaging best, though, even though this looked such a makeshift and callow Arsenal defence.

Really, the flatness of the game meant United's didn't look too much sharper, and the returning Henrikh Mkhitaryan took advantage of that shortly after half-time with a low shot into the corner.

He raised his arms to offer at least some celebration, but it was hardly fulsome given it was his first match back at Old Trafford since leaving, and it was a gesture that felt entirely in-keeping with the day.

Mkhitaryan was similarly applauded off when subbed off, all old complaints and gripes forgotten. Danny Welbeck was on the pitch by then as a sub, and did inject a touch more intensity to the game, particularly with one piledriver of a shot that David De Gea beat down.

As much as this match was about the past, mind, there were glimpses of the future: particularly the entertaining flashes from Reiss Nelson.

He beautifully jinked his way into the United box early on, and then had a header saved from De Gea too. Ainsley Maitland-Niles also offered some encouraging signs.

It was really the perfect kind of low-pressure game for such experimentation. It was also one where Pogba's occasionally frustrating penchant for languidly trotting around didn't look any way out of place.

That was just the pace of the game. That was the nature of the day.

There wasn't much to take from it from a football point of view, although there was just enough impetus from United to take all three points.

Before then, the away crowd began to chant “Arsene Wenger, give us a wave”. They eventually got one.

He was also waving goodbye to this great stadium, the scene of so many of his great memories, even if he will not cherish the last one.

Independent News Service

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