"United are still in the best position," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "But at least, for the first time, the outcome is in our hands." Liverpool and Blackburn will also scent renewed hope. Arsenal have to play both away; United have to play Liverpool at Old Trafford and travel to Ewood Park. Neither prospect will ease the sleep of Alex Ferguson, the United manager, who also has a lengthening injury list to add to his worries, three days before the return leg of the European Cup quarter- final against Monaco.
The most damaging aspect of yesterday's defeat might not yet be the loss of three points, but the snap of the hamstring which could put Schmeichel out for the next five weeks. That the injury was incurred midway into the Arsenal half, after a lunge at Dennis Bergkamp, will do little to settle United's sinking morale. As a spectator ran on to the field and capered about the centre circle, before being apprehended forcefully by Nigel Winterburn, the season's critical day degenerated close to farce. Ferguson, though, did not see the funny side.
"We did not have the strength to beat Arsenal," he said. "It's hard when you're changing the team all the time. You want to be able to say, 'This is Manchester United. Come and beat us'. We haven't been able to do that."
A motley crew of Premiership also-rans have debagged the champions since the New Year: Southampton, Leicester, Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and now, most significantly, Arsenal. Only against Chelsea, in both Cup and League, have United looked the same side that bestrode the land so colossally before Christmas. Seven goals in nine games is not the harvest of champions, as Ferguson acknowledged. "We played some decent football without looking as though we would win the match," he said.
The team sheet, with Ronny Johnsen and Philip Neville in midfield, suggested to Wenger that United were happy to play the away team, safe in the knowledge that a draw was as good as a win. And for 80 minutes, the ploy worked. Change strips, put Arsenal in red and United into Weetabix yellow and no one would have known who was at home. Old Trafford was reduced to nervous silence by the controlled passing and relentless tackling of the French axis, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, in midfield and the direct running of Overmars.
Twice the Dutchman could have scored before half-time, once when he rounded Schmeichel but shot wide from an acute angle, the second time bursting between John Curtis and Henning Berg to toepoke wide. A clumsy challenge by the United full-back brought loud and legitimate claims for a penalty. Curtis was removed to the safety of the left wing and substituted just after half-time.
United's rare moments of threat came courtesy of uncharacteristically slack defending by Arsenal, for whom Martin Keown and Tony Adams were otherwise impenetrable. A misplaced pass by Lee Dixon fell straight to Andy Cole, whose shot was blocked by the impressive Alex Manninger, and just before half-time a needless offside trap was easily sprung by Cole. Manninger advanced, Cole took the ball fractionally too wide and the chance was gone. Given the young Austrian's maturity, David Seaman might struggle to win back his place.
"At half-time I was worried because I knew we would come under big pressure in the second half and we had missed some chances," Wenger said. Paul Scholes was moved to the right of midfield, David Beckham, a peripheral figure for much of the first half, tried to find some inspiration in the centre, but Arsenal dictated the tempo until, 11 minutes from time, the wheels finally began to break loose from the faltering United bandwagon.
Successive injuries to Johnsen and Philip Neville unbalanced United's hard core. A header by Bergkamp, a flick by Nicolas Anelka and Overmars, whippet quick, could be denied no longer. "That was the critical moment," Ferguson said. "Having to regroup like that was a killer." From a season of mellow fruitfulness, United are having to scrap for the windfalls.
The joy on the face of the Arsenal players told its own story. At the final whistle, Vieira and Petit, the architects of victory, hugged each other with Gallic effusion, Winterburn exhorted the Arsenal faithful with exaggerated aggression. The limping figure of Schmeichel seemed an apt metaphor for United's growing discomfort.Reuse content