Thursday 26 April 2018

Rooney is rampant as Arsenal fall apart

Vermaelen 80
Almunia 33 og, Rooney 37, Park 52

FOR THOSE of you watching this at home on television, Manchester United were the team playing in three dimensions and Arsenal were the team with only one.

The long-awaited 3D revolution hit televised football yesterday but for those of us at the Emirates there was only one team worth watching and that was the defending champions. Alex Ferguson’s team were unstoppable in the 20-minute period either side of halftime in which they scored their three goals, and one man among them was running the show.

As befits his season, Wayne Rooney was an immense figure yet again, scoring United’s second goal and generally fulfilling the role of centre-forward, No 10 and playmaker as and when the mood took him. Late in the game he collected the ball and surged past Emmanuel Eboué who simply fell over: it was a pretty good summary of Arsenal’s performance.

Were it not for Thomas Vermaelen’s deflected volley in the 80th minute to lend the scoreline some respectability for Arsenal, it would have been an identical scoreline to the one that Chelsea won by at the Emirates on November 29. Then, as now, there was a chasm between the team that has genuine title credentials and Arsenal who again fell to bits when it mattered.

Against Chelsea in November, Wenger’s team found themselves outmuscled. Yesterday they were beaten at their own beautiful game. Led by Rooney, United played the 4-3-3 formation that Arsenal have adopted this season, picking off Wenger’s team with breathtaking precision on the counterattack.

Arsenal were unfortunate to run into the best performance from Luis Nani in a United shirt since he came to the club in 2007. His shot led to a brilliant first goal for United, with a little help from a misjudgement by Manuel Almunia, and he looked much more direct and disciplined than he has in the past. Park Jisung scored the second as United broke against an Arsenal team that did not know whether to stand off or step up.

Arsenal did have chances, most of them in an opening period in which Andrei Arshavin looked like the game’s most dangerous player. Unlike United, the home side squandered them all, mainly through Arshavin’s greediness when presented with a sight of goal. Wenger did not even bother to make excuses for his players. “We were poor,” he said.

Arsenal have risen from the grave before as far as the title race is concerned so it would be unwise to say that they are completely out of it and the gap – four points to United, one more to Chelsea in first place – is not that big. At times yesterday, however, it looked insurmountable as the likes of Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Denilson simply faded from view when it mattered.

This game was in the bag so early for United that when the travelling fans sang for Ferguson to wave to them with more than 20 minutes left he responded with a clenched fist. It was not the reaction of a manager who thought that this game was in the balance any longer.

United did not have Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand in their starting lineups, the former an unexpected absentee because he was fit enough to make the bench against Manchester City on Wednesday. Ferdinand was not even missed as he served the first game of his four-match ban; in his absence Wes Brown was outstanding as the senior man alongside Jonny Evans.

Having demonstrated in the past that he is not always capable of dealing with the more physical elements of the English game, Nani took a tough challenge from Song early in the game and picked himself as United opened the scoring on 33 minutes. His shot was cunningly disguised as a cross but Almunia got the angles wrong and instead of pushing it over his bar just dragged it into his own goal.

Nani had taken Michael Carrick’s ball on his chest out by the right touchline and jinked in between a below-par Gaël Clichy and a half-hearted Nasri to attack the goal. He went past Denilson easily before clipping a back-post shot that found its way in off Almunia.

Squint for a moment at the figure beating defenders and cutting in from the right and you could easily have mistaken Nani for Cristiano Ronaldo, and it is not as if anyone has been able to say that in the last three years. They are big boots to fill for a player whom Ferguson describes as a “shy boy”. Yesterday Nani must have felt like a new signing for the United support.

The visitors had turned the game around by the 25th minute when Paul Scholes was played in on goal and muscled off the ball by William Gallas. One goal up and suddenly they were unstoppable. Rooney’s goal was a thing of beauty, beginning when Park dispossessed Gallas in his own area and picked out Rooney to start the move.

As United broke, Rooney found Nani on the right and galloped into the Arsenal area to sweep the return pass past Almunia. It was similar to Ronaldo’s extraordinary goal on the break at the Emirates in the Champions League semi-final last season, a game which Wenger had mentioned in his programme notes. “We are a different animal now,” the Arsenal manager said.

Different animal maybe, but the same old outcome. Yesterday, as they did last May, Arsenal resembled the generic unidentifiable furry object lying by the side of the road, squashed by something bigger and more ruthless.

The third goal began and ended with Park and went via Rooney and Carrick before the South Korean bore down on Almunia and beat him at the near post. On his seat in the dugout, Wenger was past being distraught and was approaching that rare state for him when he had already conceded defeat.

There was a brief rally after Vermaelen’s goal went in off Evans and United found themselves under siege. It was Ferguson’s team’s first away win over fellow big four opposition in the last two seasons but it was a lot more significant than that. It was the win that says their fourth successive title is a distinct possibility.

Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna (Bendtner, 72), Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Denilson (Walcott, 60); Rosicky (Eboué, 72), Arshavin, Nasri. Substitutes not used: Ramsey, Silvestre, Fabianski (gk), Traoré.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; Rafael, Brown, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes (Giggs, 71), Carrick; Nani (Berbatov, 88), Rooney, Park (Valencia, 86). Substitutes not used: Owen, Gibson, Kuszczak (gk), De Laet.

Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).

Booked Arsenal Song.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 60,091.

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