Football: Ronaldo double knocks Arsenal out of race in Highbury battle

ARSENAL v MANCHESTER UNITED; Arsenal 2 Manchester United 4
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The Independent Online
EYES BLAZING, toe to toe, so the most enthralling match of the Premiership season began with Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane facing each other down in the tunnel. The fuse was lit, the old enmity of two rivals sparked before a ball had been kicked. And when we finished 90 minutes later, the 10 men of Manchester United had made a booming statement about the shape of English football.

The title might well be Chelsea's, but Sir Alex Ferguson is back with a vengeance, from 11 points behind Arsenal in October to two points ahead this morning. This was a sensational game that was made ragged by emotion and fury but ultimately exposed the weaknesses at the heart of Arsene Wenger's defence. after Arsenal were twice in the lead, their goalkeeper Manuel Almunia was at fault for United's decisive third goal and, when Mikael Silvestre was dismissed, not even Thierry Henry could deliver an equaliser.

From the moment Keane intervened in the tunnel to stop Vieira from, as he said, "intimidating" Gary Neville, to the full-time handshake between Wenger and Ferguson, this was a game that took the breath away. There was the ugly spectre of diving, there was a penalty that was not given and, looming over it all, was the edgy brilliance of Wayne Rooney that threatened to explode at times. Ferguson said his team included no "wimps" and on this evidence it was hard to disagree.

The story of how Arsenal lost an unbeaten run at home that started in May 2003 began with Freddie Ljungberg's soft fall to the ground in the first minute under Gabriel Heinze's supervision. A crowd of red shirts buzzed around the referee Graham Poll and, in the circumstances, you had to wonder what chance the official had of running the game.

Within three minutes, Ashley Cole had dived under Keane's challenge in the area. There was no reward forthcoming but within eight minutes Arsenal had taken the lead. From Henry's corner, Vieira shrugged off Heinze's challenge and glanced his header past Roy Carroll.

It felt like we were clinging to the edge of sanity as Heinze and Ryan Giggs were booked. Only an apology from Rooney, when he caught Lauren, saved the teenager from the book. Then, from one tiny error by Sol Campbell on 18 minutes, United's ruthless attacking unit cut through Arsenal for a spectacular equaliser. The Arsenal centre-back had a clearance charged down by Paul Scholes and, when the ball found its way back to the United No 18, he chipped perfectly to Rooney in the area. The United striker laid the ball back out to Giggs whose shot deflected off Cole past Almunia. It was made by Rooney's pass and his influence was growing fast.

There was barely time to contemplate United's equaliser before Silvestre's trip on Robert Pires on 22 minutes cried out for the reward of a penalty. Pires's frustration boiled over minutes later when, grounded, he kicked out at Darren Fletcher. Suddenly, in the aftermath, Rooney was goading the Frenchman and, once again, the ground gasped in anticipation of a riot.

Arsenal took the lead again on 35 minutes when Vieira's long ball found Henry and, with his back to goal, he was allowed to turn by Rio Ferdinand. The striker tucked a through ball to Dennis Bergkamp, who beat Roy Carroll from close range.

We almost lost Rooney in the late stages of the first half as his temper and precocious touch took centre stage. After 40 minutes he was stopped by Almunia and then, moments later, he chipped for goal just a second after the whistle. When Poll pulled out the yellow card, unnecessarily it seemed, the rage across Rooney's face made you fear for his further involvement in the game.

United's equaliser came on 55 minutes on the end of a brilliant move. The ball swept from Rooney to Giggs and then down the left to Ronaldo, who slapped his shot across Almunia and into the far corner.

The balance had shifted. Just before the hour Giggs tapped a free-kick to Rooney and his curling shot eluded Almunia to clip the angle of post and bar. Moments later the Spanish goalkeeper was not so lucky. As Giggs sprinted down the right, Almuniarushed to the edge of his area to tackle him and was beaten. Giggs crossed and Ronaldo tapped home. Wenger called his team's defending "worrying" - disastrous would be more accurate.

Silvestre's dismissal on 68 minutes was the first of his United career and he barely bothered to wait for the red card. The French defender squared up to Ljungberg and butted the Swede on the nose.

United's midfield regrouped and, with two minutes left, Scholes found the substitute John O'Shea in acres of space to chip Almunia. The title might be lost, but United's response will echo across English football for some time to come.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren (Fabregas, 82), Cygan, Campbell (Hoyte, 81), Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini (Reyes, 72), Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Van Persie.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre (Brown, 70), Heinze; Giggs (Saha, 76), Fletcher (O'Shea, 60), Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), P Neville.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Premiership table, page 45

Flashpoints on and off the pitch

-5 mins: Keane and Vieira have altercation in tunnel as teams line up. Keane told by referee Poll to "leave it, leave it in here".

5: Heinze elbows Ljungberg.

11: Heinze booked for body-checking Ljungberg.

14: Giggs booked for late tackle on Cole.

15: Rooney stamps on Lauren's toe. Spoken to by Poll.

21: Silvestre upends Pires in area, but no penalty.

27: Pires kicks out after being barged over by Fletcher. Rooney gets involved and makes mocking gesture at Pires. Spoken to again by referee.

42: Rooney booked for dissent. Continues to argue with referee, who summons captain Keane to calm the teenager down.

45: Rooney makes clumsy tackle on Vieira in full flight. Referee takes no action.

Added time: Henry angers Ronaldo with patronising tap on the head

57: Ronaldo booked for over-doing celebrations of his second goal

59: Keane argues with referee after Fletcher is innjured. Fletcher replaced by O'Shea.

68: Silvestre sent off after head-butting Ljungberg. Play had already stopped following Silvestre's tussle with Bergkamp in the area.

Total: 1 red card, 6 yellow