Arsenal injected hope into themselves and the top half of the Premiership yesterday when they grabbed hold of Manchester United's reins and gave them a severe tug. Talk of runaway leaders and one-horse races has been silenced temporarily.
Indeed this match might prove a turning point in more ways than one as layers of concern were laid on United. Gary Pallister faces a lengthy period of convalescence with a recurrence of a back injury and Paul Scholes got his fifth booking of the season which means he will be suspended for three matches, one of which is against Liverpool at Anfield. No matter how they look at it, it was a ghastly afternoon for the champions.
Even the draw United probably deserved was denied them by a goal scored seven minutes from time by David Platt, a player they released as a youngster. They had come to land a serious blow on their closest rivals but instead the pulsating and tempestuous match moved Arsenal to within a point of them.
The winner proved the final twist to a plot that wriggled off in so many directions its destination remained cloaked to the final whistle. Arsenal took a two-goal lead, were pegged back, by two goals from Teddy Sheringham and, even after Platt scored, the substitutes Christopher Wreh or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have given the result a different complexion.
It was splendid entertainment but on the minus side, Nigel Winterburn and Peter Schmeichel appeared to be hit by objects thrown from the crowd. A spokesman said the Football Association would await reports before taking action, adding: "Obviously we are concerned when players appear to be struck or injured by objects thrown from the crowd but we are not going to make any hasty decisions."
Haste was the last thing on the minds of United as they began with such assurance they could have been playing out the final minutes of their 6-1 Sheffield Wednesday massacre. Arsene Wenger had expected to meet a retreating force and had preferred Gilles Grimandi to Steve Bould at centre- back to combat the pace of Andy Cole.
What he got was United pinning his side into their own half. Their movement and passing were exemplary, while Sheringham drifted into a gap between Arsenal's back four and midfield and directed the traffic with his chest and head. It was superb stuff, the only problem was that their aplomb was interrupted by two outstanding home goals.
For eight minutes Arsenal had barely touched the ball until Marc Overmars shocked the United defence with a run of such speed and decisiveness it required a brave lunge from Henning Berg to halt it. The danger appeared over but Nicolas Anelka turned on the rebound cut inside Gary Neville and beat Schmeichel at the near post.
The goalkeeper had little chance with that shot and his slightly suspect positioning gave him even less with the next that came his way after 26 minutes. Ray Parlour's corner from the left flicked Tony Adams' head and carried on to the right-hand corner of the area where Patrick Vieira thumped it into the roof of the net.
United were behind but they still had control of midfield and slowly their dominance began to find gaps in the hitherto watertight home defence. Sheringham and Cole had shots that were too close to David Seaman before Gary Neville delivered the kind of cross centre-forwards salivate over in the 33rd minute and Sheringham headed emphatically past the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Seven minutes later the score was 2-2 when Nicky Butt headed on, an otherwise disappointing Ryan Giggs flicked the ball with the back of a heel and Sheringham turned and shot into the far corner.
When Scholes was brought down in the area by Winterburn it seemed the match had turned comprehensively in United's favour. The referee turned down claims for a penalty, however, and, with Pallister injured, the game slowly slipped from their grasp.
Tactically their fingers were prised open by Wenger who restricted their space by bringing on Bould to create a three-man rearguard for the second half. Winterburn and Lee Dixon suddenly had the security to attack and Arsenal wrestled control of the midfield.
This gave Ian Wright, an anonymous figure in the first half, space and his run down the right after 81 minutes ultimately led to the winner. He dragged the ball back for Wreh whose shot was going wide until it hit Gary Neville and bounced towards the goal. Schmeichel, already on the floor, somehow clawed away the ball but as United were applauding their goalkeeper, the decisive blow was about to land.
Platt lost his marker, Beckham, with a run from the back to the near post and with a glorious header he sent the ball spiralling over Schmeichel into the far corner.
Wreh missed a chance to make the lead even more emphatic with a hopeless shot soon afterwards and the game finished with United pressing desperately forward. Solskjaer almost got the equaliser they craved but his volley was to straight to properly worry Seaman.
It was a day when little went right for United.
Goals: Anelka (7) 1-0; Vieira (27) 2-0; Sheringham (33) 2-1; Sheringham (41) 2-2; Platt (83) 3-2.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Grimandi, Winterburn; Parlour, Platt, Vieira (Bould, h-t), Overmars; Anelka (Wreh, 79), Wright. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Boa Morte, Hughes.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister (Johnsen, 38), P Neville; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs ( Solskjaer, 71); Sheringham, Cole. Substitutes not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw.
Referee: M Bodenham (Ferring, West Sussex).
Bookings: Arsenal: Platt, Wright. Manchester United: P Neville, Scholes.
Man of the match: Parlour.