Emirates delivers spectacle to keep global viewers happy

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The Independent Online

Carlos Tevez and Anderson Luis de Abreu Oliveira had been off the pitch, substituted, for just four minutes when Arsène Wenger sent on Gilberto Silva and, to fit him in, rejigged the Arsenal team into an unfamiliar 4-2-3-1 formation. One briefly wondered if a Premier League functionary had put a call in to the Arsenal bench to point out the South American audience was switching off and it was Arsenal's turn to send one on.

A scurrilous thought, but it is the one which comes to mind when claims are being made for a worldwide television audience of 1bn and the Football Association last week agreed a hugely enhanced deal for global rights. And let us be honest, it is not that great a step from clubs as distinct as Manchester United and Sheffield United signing such no-hopers as Fangzhou Dong and Li Tie. Formula One already awards cockpit seats to some drivers on the identity of their passport and strength of their television pulling power.

Fifteen nationalities featured on Saturday (16 if Owen Hargreaves' Canadian birth is considered) and the suspiciously convenient kick-off time ensured the one major part of the globe without a presence, Asia, would be awake to deliver the biggest viewing figures. Steve McMahon, the former Liverpool midfielder, was at the Emirates Stadium in his capacity as a pundit for Singapore-based Pan-Asian ESPN Star Sports. He anticipated an audience in excess of 500m.

Did all these viewers stay to the gripping end? Probably, despite an interesting but largely uneventful opening half-hour. Unusually for the Emirates, which is often half-full by the final whistle as fans try to beat the tube station log-jam, there were very few empty seats by the time William Gallas volleyed in the equaliser.

Will they all tune in next time? Again, probably. The sight of Tomas Rosicky scrapping furiously for possession down by a corner flag was a reminder of English football's basic requirement; unstinting commitment. Add technique, pace, power and another domestic must, attacking intent, and you have a brew as heady as the Vietnamese lager which was being advertised on the pitchside hoardings. Even the lower leagues, in which muscle often acts as a substitute for skill, has enough allure for McMahon recently to have considered giving up his expat-lifestyle, and half-billion viewers, to manage League One stragglers Gillingham.

It is not just about the football, too. Those of liberal inclination could do worse than hail the Premier League as an example of benevolent immigration. The sheer scale of the foreign influx would, admittedly, unnerve even the most open-minded if replicated among the population at large, but the improvement in the quality of the domestic game is bewitching and the benefits are not only one way.

Didier Drogba no longer falls like a salmon, his own supporters having made clear their displeasure at his diving, and it will be very surprising if Anderson is still waving an imaginary card at referees by the end of the season. Such unedifying behaviour is not tolerated by English spectators and Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to have a quiet word with the raw, but very promising Brazilian.

Not that the United manager was in the mood for self-critical analysis. He rarely is when victory is snatched from him, but he is not alone in that. There were titters when Wenger, who knows how to play to the gallery, was asked if he had seen the equaliser was over the line and responded: "I did not see it."

Both managers, when they review the tape, will find reasons to be cheerful, and fearful. There were periods when Arsenal's passing and movement made United look novices. For much of the game Hargreaves was no more effective at stopping the tide than a traffic cop in Rome. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Tevez, the new Best, Law and Charlton, were barely in the game.

But as the match ebbed and flowed it was suddenly Arsenal who could not get the ball and their attacking players who grew frustrated. For all the talent on view, it was not a day for strikers. All four goals came from wide areas, three of them laid on by full-backs, the other in part provided by a full-back. It was further proof of the importance of such players in the modern game, where space is at a premium and everyone is athletic.

The forwards should enjoy the next few weeks more as Arsenal and Manchester United return to battering the rest of the division and securing their place in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Their next audit will be on 16 December when United go to Anfield and Arsenal host Chelsea. The date is doubtless already circled on calendars from Alaska to Zanzibar.

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