IT IS A great life playing football for Manchester United. Wealth beyond dreams, a 30-hour working week, the best of everything, but however good you are, the spectre of injury is always there. At Old Trafford on Saturday, football's great leveller descended in turn on Phil Neville, Ronny Johnsen and, most savagely and cruelly of all, Peter Schmeichel.
The goalkeeper, so crucial to United's domestic and European progress, tore a hamstring on a vain forward excursion as United sought a late equaliser. He knew, immediately, that he was out of Wednesday's European Cup quarter- final with Monaco and much more besides.
There are few sadder sights in sport than a great but wounded athlete and even the most dedicated United hater should have been stirred to sympathy by Schmeichel's agony as he limped back to his goal while the game raged around him. When he finally got there, David May stupidly gave the goalkeeper a back-pass and the sight of him trying to clear with his left foot while barely able to stand on his right was pitiful.
When the final whistle blew a few minutes later, his plight seemed symbolic of his team's as he was helped from the field while, just yards away, Arsenal and their fans exulted. Their joy was absolute but each player, as he made his way to the blue-and-yellow carnival, stopped to shake the Dane's hand or give him a consoling pat. Each knew that "but for the grace of God there go I".
Schmeichel's injury was the final act of a shattering Saturday for United. As Arsenal rejoiced, there was a feeling that we had witnessed the critical game in this championship season. Not as dramatic, perhaps, as Anfield in 1989, but if Arsenal now go on to lift the title, this game will be remembered as the decisive one. "We believed we could win. We were ready to be patient," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "We look a real team. The spirit is great. We are difficult to beat and have the right balance."
During and after the match, Arsenal bore the stamp of champions. The Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, has made great play over the years of the need for experience when pursuing the championship. Blackburn, like his own team, had to lose a title before they could win one, Newcastle and Liverpool have each failed to sustain a challenge.
Arsenal are different. Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Tony Adams are veterans of the '89 and '91 championship campaigns. Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars have won leagues overseas. They have been there before.
They are also running into form at the right time. Arsenal have not lost in the League since mid-December, unbeaten in 10 games during which they have taken 24 points. United, meanwhile, have taken 14 points from the last 11 matches. Arsenal have been through their injury crisis; David Seaman, Steve Bould and Ian Wright are still missing but only Wright is missed. United now have eight players injured and Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes are likely to have to play with injury against Monaco.
Giggs' injury has been crucial. Without him, United lacked the width and penetration Overmars and Ray Parlour provided for Arsenal. On Saturday, Arsenal funnelled them into the centre where attack after attack foundered on the twin defensive walls of Petit and Patrick Vieira, and Adams and Martin Keown. "We had a very solid block there," Wenger said. "We knew Manchester United combine a lot through Teddy Sheringham in the centre and we had to win the battle there. That was one of the keys."
While Arsenal made and missed a series of openings, United created nothing. Their only chances came from either free-kicks or errors - one by Lee Dixon with a wayward pass, the other by a linesman. Each time, Andy Cole was presented with a chance he would have taken in November. He has now scored once in 11 League games.
Both Ferguson and Petit later said United looked tired and Petit suggested United might struggle against his former team. "It may be harder for them here than in Monaco," he said. "They will need to be careful, Monaco are very good on the counter-attack and they will have David Trezeguet back. He does not need many chances to score."
The only plus for United was the performance of Gary Neville who, until the late, injury-induced reshuffling, played in central defence. Apart from a tackle from behind on Bergkamp that would have brought red, not yellow, in the World Cup, he was immaculate.
He was, however, the full-back who should have been running with Overmars when the Dutch winger ran on to Nicolas Anelka's header to score. Overmars should have scored earlier having given John Curtis a fearful chasing until Ferguson belatedly switched the teenager.
In the final few minutes, United showed an urgency which had previously been missing, but Arsenal were composed and resolute. Even a rogue spectator failed to disturb them, having been allowed to amble around the pitch by United's security staff, who did not appear to want to get their blazers dirty, he was apprehended by Winterburn. It was an apt illustration of United's lethargy and the visitors' control.
Goal: Overmars (78) 0-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Curtis (Thornley, 52), G Neville, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen (May, 78), Scholes, P Neville (Solskjaer, 76); Cole, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: McClair, Van der Gouw, (gk).
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour (Garde, 68), Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Wreh (Anelka, 65), Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Hughes, Lukic (gk).
Referee: A Wilkie (Co Durham).
Bookings: Manchester United G Neville, Sheringham. Arsenal Anelka, Dixon, Adams.
Men of the match: Vieira and Petit.