United inches closer to title

For Manchester United, the victory is one to reflect upon. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was issued a reminder by Arsenal of how arduous the closing phase of a season can be, writes Kevin McCarra.

Manchester United were not allowed to be fussy about the way they approached the Premier League title. This was a stumble rather than a glide towards the trophy as Arsenal performed with enormous pride and exertion before succumbing to a defeat that was hardly deserved.

Only a sadist will sneer that they again conceded an equaliser so soon after going in front. The victory is one for United to reflect upon. If they needed a reminder of how arduous the closing phase of a season can be, then they were given it in a resounding manner. Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, needed little prompting to admit that Arsenal had deserved more. It was as if the laws of physiology had been given the afternoon off when Arsene Wenger’s team acted as if they had not been through the harrowing night at Anfield recently that eliminated them from the Champions League.

This was the energy of desperation from a team frantic to stave off the end of their campaign. United could barely equal it, despite the rest a few members of the squad had been granted when Roma were at this ground on April 9. Arsenal could have equalised here and Old Trafford hearts hammered, for instance, as the substitute Nicklas Bendtner rose for two late headers that Edwin van der Sar reached. There was a liberation for Arsenal in the knowledge that they had nothing left to lose. United, on the other hand, were hampered by all the calculations that buzz in the brains of a side on the verge of retaining this prize. While they did not flow as Arsenal had in the first half, they came up with a means of winning after going 1-0 down. Two victories, including a triumph at Stamford Bridge on April 26, will confirm them as champions because of their impregnable advantage in goal difference.

Despite the spasmodic character of a display in which Cristiano Ronaldo was largely marginalised, there were still openings for United. Jens Lehmann, between the posts for Arsenal because of a wrist injury to Manuel Almunia, needed to make a string of saves even when the United engine was spluttering. With the fixture goalless, for instance, he got a foot to Wayne Rooney’s close-range shot after a Ronaldo cut-back in the 23rd minute. The German’s presence could have been mistaken for a harbinger of achievement. Emmanuel Adebayor had squandered several opportunities, too soft with some finishes and wild with another, before at last putting Arsenal in front after 48 minutes. The tireless Gael Clichy crossed and the United defence paused in the misinformed assumption that Van der Sar would come to catch it. As the Dutchman froze, Adebayor bundled the ball into the net although it did seem to come off his arm.

United should not let the rejoicing at the end obliterate all recollection of their jeopardy. They could have been 2-0 down, as Rio Ferdinand directed a hard Adebayor cross towards his own net, but Van der Sar blocked. At that moment all the admiration was for Arsenal and for the sharpness of players such as Alexander Hleb as they tried to cut down United.

The haphazard, self-destructive trait in Wenger’s side was not to be suppressed all the same. In the 52nd minute William Gallas leaned to his left and put an arm in the way of a pass from Michael Carrick.

Ronaldo was then obliged to give a more sustained exhibition of his adroitness from the spot. His first attempt was disallowed because Park Ji-sung had encroached.

Here was a fertile situation for Lehmann, who delayed the retake at the expense of a caution. Ronaldo was not to be distracted and possessed such supreme faith in himself that he delivered an upgraded version of his initial penalty. Lehmann was once more beaten to his right, but the shot that sped past him was kept even lower.

United could not really kill off Arsenal; it took the full-time whistle to do that. Wenger’s men nearly levelled but the Clichy cross that broke from Wes Brown after 68 minutes banged off the near post. Arsenal were to be undone by a piece of precision. Gilberto Silva fouled Patrice Evra and Ronaldo was the decoy as Owen Hargreaves, just as he had at Fulham, scooped an exquisite free-kick over the wall and low into the net. Lehmann could do nothing more than gawp. Arsenal, who collected five bookings, were not crushed and continued to claw at United. Their challenge for the title had expired a while ago but only this defeat persuaded Wenger to issue the death certificate. His side were killed off over a period commencing with the 2-2 draw at Birmingham City in late February. The manager now has more weeks than he would have wished for in which to consider how he can deepen his squad.

Wenger has, as a parting shot, driven United into a period of chastened reflection. Perhaps that will be a boon to Ferguson. After this the squad will believe him when he insists there is nothing to be taken for granted in the Premier League or Champions League.

April 13: Liverpool 3 (Gerrard 60, Torres 82, Voronin 90) bt Blackburn 1 (Santa Cruz 90). Half-time: 0-0; Manchester United 2 (Ronaldo pen-54, Hargreaves 72) bt Arsenal 1 (Adebayor 48). Half-time: 0-0.

April 12: Birmingham 1 (Zarate 83) drew with Everton 1 (Lescott 78). Half-time: 0-0; Bolton 1 (Davies 47) bt West Ham 0. Half-time: 0-0; Derby 0 lost to Aston Villa 6 (Young 25, Carew 26, Petrov 36, Barry 58, Agbonlahor 76, Harewood 85). Half-time: 0-3; Portsmouth 0 drew with Newcastle 0; Reading 0 lost to Fulham 2 (McBride 24, Nevland 90). Half-time: 0-1; Sunderland 1 (Whitehead 82) lost to Manchester City 2 (Elano pen-79, Vassell 87). Half-time: 0-0; Tottenham 1 (Grounds o.g. 27) drew with Middlesbrough 1 (Downing 69). Half-time: 1-0.

April 8: West Ham 0 lost to Portsmouth 1 (Kranjcar 61). Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008