Tuesday 20 February 2018

Park rises to occasion as United take pole position

Manchester Utd 1
Arsenal 0

Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung celebrates scoring against Arsenal during their Premier League clash at Old Trafford last night - United won 1-0. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung celebrates scoring against Arsenal during their Premier League clash at Old Trafford last night - United won 1-0. Photo: Getty Images
Wayne Rooney blasts his second-half penalty over the bar during last night's Premier League encounter at Old Trafford.

Henry Winter

Ominously for the rest, Manchester United went top of the Premier League without hitting top gear.

Ji-Sung Park's clever header separated the two sides but United were rarely seriously troubled by Arsenal.

Their victory would have been even easier had Wayne Rooney placed a second-half penalty into the net rather than into the Stretford End.

United were deserved winners because of Rooney's running, Park's quick thinking, the defensive reliability of Nemanja Vidic and the accomplished movement of Nani, the man of the match.

Alex Ferguson's side, watched by David Beckham and Chilean miners, know they can play better in this intriguing title race.

Ferguson's tactics appeared vindicated when Park scored four minutes from the break with a twisting header.

With Dimitar Berbatov on the bench, United began in 4-2-3-1 formation with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher holding, Nani and Park providing the width and Anderson muscling upfield in support of lone frontrunner Rooney.

United had sensed a vulnerability in the visitors. Faced with a Premier League debutant, Ferguson's men sought to test the Arsenal 'keeper Wojciech Szczesny with early shots. Nani and Rooney both tried their luck but the young Pole was equal to the challenge.

Wenger's decision to give a Premier League debut to Szczesny highlighted the Arsenal manager's doubts about Lukasz Fabianski, who was relegated to the bench, although the official reason was a slight hip problem.

United kept building in waves towards Szczesny's goal. Nani was invariably involved. When the Portuguese flier flicked the ball on to Fletcher, the Scot tried to whip a cross in towards Rooney, who was lurking near the far post.


Sebastien Squillaci intervened, but it was a wretched clearance, the centre-half heading the ball straight to Nani, whose first-time shot whistled just wide.

Old Trafford watched transfixed. Freight-loads of controversy is never far away from this fixture and the latest shipment duly arrived midway through the half. Samir Nasri, hitherto quiet, sprang to life, hoisting a cross in from the right.

As Marouane Chamakh drifted towards the ball, Rafael patently blocked his path, leaving the Moroccan open-mouthed at the offence and Webb's decision to wave play on.

Chamakh himself was then fortunate that Howard Webb deemed his handling offence in the Arsenal box an accidental act.

United protestations were met with invective from the away corner, the Arsenal fans reserving particular venom for Patrice Evra. United's feisty full-back had enlivened the pre-match period by making disparaging remarks about Arsenal being a "training centre" and bereft of trophies.

Ferguson and Wenger may have declared a truce but nobody informed the supporters.

For a while, the chants were spikier than the football. Until Park intervened, this was far from a classic, the Stretford End seething with frustration when Carrick lost possession.

Rooney then aimed a sly kick at Gael Clichy after running into another yellow-shirted ball-searching party.

Yet United's movement was proving irresistible, at times stopped only by some illegal tactics. Fletcher was so incensed at Alex Song's trip that he raged at Webb, even pushing the World Cup referee and remarkably escaping a caution.

United's pressure eventually told. Fletcher set the scene for their goal, flicking the ball towards Rooney, who swiftly transferred play to Nani. As United's No 17 began cutting in from the right, Park embarked on a sprint in from the other flank.

Nani ran at Clichy, working the ball on to his left foot and shaping for a shot. As Clichy dived in, Nani's strike deflected off the left-back's foot, looping up towards Park, who had stolen in ahead of Squillaci to flick a header in.

As United fans enjoyed an extended celebration, Arsenal briefly lost their discipline. Chamakh caught Nani before the half closed with Andrei Arshavin sliding in hard on Fletcher.

The stakes were as raised as some of Arsenal's studs. The visitors seemed invigorated by Wenger's half-time words. Nasri became more involved, dribbling at Ferdinand, who backed off, inviting the French international to shoot.

Edwin van der Sar saved Nasri's efforts but the ball fell to Chamakh, who really should have scored but hesitated and was denied by Nemanja Vidic's block.

United always threatened a second. Anderson had already demanded a save from Szczesny and was soon bulldozing through Jack Wilshere, who resembled a boy amongst men.

Wenger acted, withdrawing the hobbling, chastened Wilshere and ineffectual Tomas Rosicky and sending on Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie.

The tension between the players was then seen in some nasty challenges.

Ferdinand leapt into Bacary Sagna, his right boot ripping open the shirt of the Arsenal full-back. Arsenal were far from shrinking violets, Van Persie body-checking Evra.

Still the challenges flew in, Park somehow negotiating an assault course of fouls from Song and Laurent Koscielny. Still United menaced on the counter.

When Nani darted in from the right, his attempted pass was stopped by the right arm of the sliding Clichy.

Arsenal pleaded hand to ball but the experienced assistant referee, Dave Bryan, signalled a penalty.

This, surely, would seal it for United. This, surely, would be a hammer blow to Arsenal. Rooney has appeared sharper since his sojourn in Portland, and his stamina was impressive, but he clearly needs work on his finishing.

Rooney's run-up was odd, as if approaching the ball from around a corner, and his kick was hopeless, the ball disappearing into the Stretford End. United fans immediately got behind the contrite No 10, singing Rooney's name as Fabregas sought to lift Arsenal with words and gestures.

Rooney almost made amends in spectacular fashion with five minutes remaining. Running on to a pass down the inside-right channel, he caught the ball and only the good reflexes of Szczesny stopped its regal progress into the net.

For all the excellence of the keeper's save, the memory remained of Arsenal centre-halves going missing.

United, meanwhile, look unbeatable without looking imperious. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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