Football: Deflected glory for United

Manchester United 1 (Winterburn og 63) Arsenal 0 Attendance: 55,210
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The Independent Online
"Stand up for the champions," Old Trafford bellowed in defiance of a tannoy command to sit down, in obedience of the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's exhortation in the match programme to sing up and in an attempt to rouse their team. It worked and, finally, the champions stood up.

It mattered not that the goal which ended a run of three Premiership defeats was courtesy of the Arsenal left-back Nigel Winterburn. Morale was rehabilitated and confidence began to flow ahead of United's return to the Champions' League against Juventus on Wednesday.

It was a little harsh on Arsenal, whose unbeaten run was ended at 10 matches, seven of them in the Premiership. They had played the more composed and fluent football as United were betrayed for an hour by the unusual self-doubt that had characterised their recent run.

Always, though, there was a fierce determination burning in United, embodied in David Beckham's persistence, and a typically uncompromising confrontation between two of the English game's titans was duly played out. Now United must rediscover it against titans of the European game on Wednesday.

"For me the telling factor was the support," Ferguson said. "When it's up like that, the team respond. Our determination and fighting ability helped us stay in the game. The more the game went on, the better our confidence became."

For two thirds of the match, Arsenal appeared tactically in control, however. Paul Merson, Patrick Vieira and David Platt outmanoeuvred the youngsters Beckham and Nicky Butt in midfield, where United sorely missed the suspended Roy Keane. At least United had a better balance with Ryan Giggs returning after injury to the left flank. Gradually, too, Eric Cantona imposed his influence anew.

Initially, however, their uncertainty was apparent. Dennis Bergkamp clipped Merson's through ball into the United net - but was ruled offside - then curled in a delicate shot from 20 yards which Peter Schmeichel had to scramble to divert.

United's response almost brought them a goal, Cantona bringing down Gary Neville's cross and laying the ball to Beckham, whose thunderous shot from the edge of the penalty area hit the outside of David Seaman's left post. For long periods of the first half, however, they barely threatened.

Arsenal were content to draw the sting and retain possession until Ian Wright made a run that they would then seek to supply. One such, with Bergkamp threading the ball through, ended with Schmeichel reacting furiously as Wright slid in.

Thankfully the mood - and the memory of a brawl between the two teams here six years ago was briefly evoked - was not carried over into the second half, although Arsenal were to finish with five cautioned (to United's one).

The arrival of a goal also concentrated minds. Martin Keown played a backpass that David Seaman tried to save from going for a corner but sliced it to Butt, who managed to cut the ball back from the byline attempting to find Cantona. Instead, it found Winterburn, although with the desired effect as the Arsenal player bundled the ball home.

"You thought that the first team to score would win the game," said the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and it was an accurate reflection. There was still much to play for, however.

Now United were galvanised. They might soon have doubled their lead when Ole Gunnar Solksjaer found Cantona, but Keown saved the situation with a timely tackle. Later Cantona, put through by Giggs, also scooped the ball over the bar with only Seaman to beat.

In between, Platt blazed over a good chance and Schmeichel beat out Dixon's long shot then turned aside Wright's follow-up as Arsenal pushed forward with more urgency. Their consequent openness, along with United's greater belief, might now have seen them lose by more.

Steve Bould's last-ditch tackle saved Arsenal, when it seemed Solskjaer must score, and the crowd roared for a penalty when Beckham's cross hit Bould's hand. In addition, Karel Poborsky chipped over the bar.

For all that, Arsenal missed the best of a game that ended with a barrage of goal attempts. Dixon's ball into the United box found Wright alone on the penalty spot and all awaited an equaliser from the Premiership's leading scorer. Schmeichel smothered his shot on the turn, however, then was out to block the rebound.

Old Trafford roared its relief at the final whistle. It is a noise they hope will be repeated when the rejuvenated rejoin the challenge with Juventus.

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