Football: Keane fires United to top

Arsenal 1 Ljungberg 41 Manchester United 2 Keane 58, 88 Attendance: 38,147
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The Independent Online
TOTTENHAM ARE no longer leading the Premiership, but that will be of little consolation to Arsenal this morning. In their place are Manchester United rather than the Gunners after a second-half brace from Roy Keane enabled them to overhaul a Fredrik Ljungberg goal which promised to put Arsenal in prime position.

Instead they are eighth in the table. The position may be largely an irrelevance at this stage of the season but, more importantly, they have lost, said Wenger, "a psychological and mathematical blow. We have dropped three points against one of our leading challengers for the championship.

"Today it was important not to lose. A draw would have been alright but it's a big blow to us to lose this game. They're a good side with great confidence and they kept that going today but there's a long way to go and we'll fight back."

It was a thrilling and absorbing game with the first-half bejeweled with quality and the second bursting with drama. Only two magnificent performances from a pair of stand-in goalkeepers, Raimond van der Gouw and Alex Manninger, kept the score down at the interval, while only the unusual generosity of spirit shown by Graham Poll kept 22 players on the pitch by the end.

Poll did book five players but, on last season's form, would have filled his book and added a red card or two for good measure. Several United players, including Keane, could have been cautioned for fouls on Patrick Vieira in the first period while the Frenchman was lucky to escape dismissal in the closing minutes as he appeared to head-butt Keane after the Irishman reacted to a heavy challenge by kicking him.

Wenger, who, as usual, did not see the latter incident, thought Poll should have been stricter earlier. "His reticence did not help the game," he said.

Sir Alex Ferguson begged to differ. "The referee had a great game," he said, adding of the fracas: "I didn't see it but these things happen in football matches."

But it would be wrong to dwell on the argy-bargy. We have come to expect it when these clubs meet and, let us be honest, it is part of the entertainment. It did not spoil the match nor unduly influence it.

Instead, concentrate on a string of fine performances. Jaap Stam and Henning Berg stood tall in the second period when Arsenal, with Marc Overmars on, threatened to over-run United. Matthew Upson filled in admirably for the injured Tony Adams; Ljungberg gave a rare good performance, full of pace and brio; and there was Keane, two goals and another monstering performance in central midfield. If his contract situation is affecting him it is only to make him play even better to affirm his value.

"I like it out on the pitch, it is the only time no-one asks me any questions about it," he said afterwards. "I've made my statement and I hope that is the end of it." He added, however: "On January 1 I am allowed to talk to people [other clubs] and we'll take it from there. At the moment none of the stories [linking him with other clubs] are true."

United would miss Keane just as Arsenal missed the drive of Adams, for all Upson's poise. While Manninger fully compensated for the loss of David Seaman, Emmanuel Petit and Nigel Winterburn were also missed, more than United's absent defenders Gary Neville, David May and Ronny Johnsen.

This difference may have been the reason United, who had only beaten Arsenal once in the last eight meetings - last April's epic FA Cup semi- final replay - emerged triumphant but it was darned close. After 55 minutes Upson, reacting to a corner flicked on by Nwankwo Kanu, hit the post. That would have put Arsenal 2-0 up and they do not often lose from there.

"That was the turning point," said Wenger. "We could have scored a second goal and maybe have killed the game. We lost a little bit of our shape and concentration in the second-half."

They did and Keane twice took advantage. Four minutes after Upson's effort Ryan Giggs caught Ray Parlour in possession, advanced and shot. The ball rebounded off Martin Keown and fell for Keane, whose finish was as clinical as any forward.

The game ebbed and flowed with Arsenal introducing Overmars and Davor Suker - "fresh" from playing for Croatia in Malta on Saturday - but it looked as if it was heading for a draw. Then Keane played a pass into Andy Cole who held the ball up before rolling it into the path of Keane, who scored with similar felicity to his earlier chance.

Even then it was not over. Deep in injury-time Upson rose highest to a corner, Van der Gouw swooped to stop it going over the goalline but only got a hand on it. As Keown's boot came crashing in he bravely got the second hand on it only to be carted into the back of the net with the ball. No goal but a nasty bruise though the Dutchman, said Ferguson, should be fit for Wednesday.

All this tended to obscure the quality of the first period which was a litany of chances. After 14 minutes, from a David Beckham free-kick, Cole jumped above Parlour to head against the bar. The response, less than a minute later, came from Theirry Henry who, put clear by Kanu, shot into Van der Gouw's mid-riff.

Then Beckham, with a reverse angled pass so perceptive even spectators high in the North Bank would not have seen it, played in Giggs only for the winger to shoot wide of the near post.

Phil Neville, who was having a challenging match, almost scored an own goal after Kanu had bamboozled Stam, then Kanu brought a superb flying save from Van der Gouw with a surprise shot from 25 yards.

Not that Manninger was a spectator. In the space of three minutes he dived at Cole's feet, tipped a Yorke drive past the post and blocked a close-range shot from Berg.

A goal had to come and, from the 17th goal attempt of the half, it did. Dixon, Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp combined on the right and suddenly there was Ljungberg in space inside the box. First blood to Arsenal, but their joy did not last.

Goals: Ljungberg (40) 1-0; Keane (59) 1-1; Keane (87) 1-2.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Upson, Silvinho; Ljungberg, Parlour, Vieira, Henry (Suker, 76); Bergkamp, Kanu (Overmars, 70). Substitutes not used: Vivas, Grimandi, Lukic (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; (Culkin, 90), P Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, 61), Giggs; Cole (Sheringham, 76), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Curtis, Solskjaer.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: Arsenal: Parlour. Manchester United: Scholes, Berg, Beckham, Neville.

Man of the match: Van der Gouw.

Attendance: 38,147.