A meagre reward

Alex Ferguson’s men were so superior, so utterly rampant at times, it is not an easy thing to criticise them but you would have to think this was a missed opportunity against Arsenal, writes Daniel Taylor.

It was an epic, lyrical performance. Manchester United’s football was fast, incisive, slick and adventurous. And yet somehow it was also flawed. Sir Alex Ferguson will not care to remember how many times he has complained this season about his players not being more clinical in front of goal and, amid all the platitudes about how they dominated this first leg, their profligacy raises one very obvious question: did they let Arsenal off the hook here?

A negative tone, perhaps. But 1-0 felt like a meagre reward when you totted up all those scoring chances inside the Arsenal penalty area. In fact, 2-0 would have still seemed rather miserly given the near-unremitting nature of this onslaught. Ferguson’s men were so superior, so utterly rampant at times, it is not an easy thing to criticise them but you would have to think this was a missed opportunity.

They will, of course, go into the return leg as the strong favourites but, Cesc Fabregas apart, Arsenal surely cannot play with such little wit and gumption on their ground. Ferguson had said beforehand that he would be “delighted” with a 1-0 win, the most important part being to ensure that Arsenal did not get an away goal. Yet, with a touch more care, United could have all but guaranteed their place in Rome on May 27.

After 20 minutes, United had 64% of possession and five shots to zero. This was the theme of the night. The dominant midfielder? Darren Fletcher. The most incisive passer? Michael Carrick. The attacker with the greatest wow factor? Take your pick from Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez or Cristiano Ronaldo. Rooney probably shaded it but it was close.

At that stage of the match Arsenal were in danger of being taken apart and Arsene Wenger was looking increasingly pensive, the worry lines standing out on his face like contours on a map. United had ticked every box, from Tevez’s selection ahead of Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney playing on the left and Fletcher starting ahead of Giggs. The newly crowned Footballer of the Year had to wait until midway through the second-half before making his 800th appearance and the biggest compliment that can be paid to Fletcher is that nobody inside Old Trafford feels affronted these days to see him in the team ahead of more established favourites.

Rooney, to use an expression more associated with other sports, was in the zone while Tevez, perhaps the man with most to prove, justified his place with the kind of indefatigable running and manic desire to get the ball that had supporters at Old Trafford holding up banners imploring him not to leave the club. Dropping Berbatov was not an easy thing for Ferguson to do but he had chosen Tevez because of the way he “electrified” the team against Tottenham in the English Premiership match.

Tevez responded by tormenting the Arsenal defence. At the same time he reminded us why, earlier this season, there was barely a flicker of protest from United’s fans when Mikael Silvestre became the first player to move from United to Arsenal since Brian Kidd in 1974.

Silvestre did improve as the game wore on, along with most of the Arsenal team, but Wenger must have been startled that so many of his players were inferior to those in red. Can they turn it round? On this evidence, United’s supporters can start checking out hotel prices in Rome. But it may need a touch more ruthlessness in front of goal at the Emirates.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009