Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0: Premiership's old guard draw blank in fight to a standstill
Wednesday 04 January 2006
The old enmity, the same long-standing feuds and yet none of the potent significance it once had. Watching from afar, Jose Mourinho will have recognised his influence in every aspect of a fixture that for so long has decided the supremacy of English football, because, as Chelsea make off with the Premiership title, the old fury that these teams once showed each other now seems more redundant than ever.
It flickered at times, and for the early part of the second half, it almost ignited, as the old combatants did their best. Wayne Rooney and Jose Antonio Reyes both upheld the old tradition but when you find yourselves 13 points behind Chelsea, as United in second place now do, then it scarcely seems to matter. Both teams fought each other to a standstill last night and with it the title race seemed also to come to a close.
They started the match 11 points behind Manchester United, even before you consider the small matter of the 25-point deficit to leaders Chelsea, but even in the no man's land of seventh place, a visit from Sir Alex Ferguson's team still matters to Arsenal. If proof was needed of the old animosity of this fixture it was Martin Keown in a black overcoat on the pitch receiving an award before the match: the former Arsenal defender could not resist glancing back over his shoulder at Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Their infamous clash in September 2003 in the Battle of Old Trafford came when these two teams still divided up the domestic honours between them. The shot on the stadium screens of Gary Neville and Thierry Henry alongside each other in the tunnel had none of the menace and hostility of Roy Keane's famous confrontation with Patrick Vieira in February. That time the former Arsenal captain had told Neville to stop kicking his team-mates and within four minutes last night the full-back lived up to his reputation.
He clipped Reyes' ankle in a foul so blatant that even the truculent United captain was prepared to own up to it immediately and the confrontation on the left side of Arsenal's attack quickly became the focus for the game's most absorbing confrontation. The memory of his tough treatment from Neville and his brother Phil at Old Trafford last October clearly still burns brightly for Reyes.
He bustled into Neville later, catching him in the face with a stray hand that the Englishman did his best to demonstrate had not affected him. It took a tackle from Ruud van Nistelrooy to stop another hard run from Reyes until he finally succumbed to an old habit by collapsing under pressure from Ryan Giggs, for which the indignant Welshman was booked.
With a midfield that Arsène Wenger had increased to five, with Gilberto Silva just in front of the back four, Arsenal did not want for possession - what they lacked was any measure of penetration. Rooney was also woefully underserved by a midfield that had Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea at its centre, and United did not release Cristiano Ronaldo for a single run at the ever-vulnerable Pascal Cygan.
Arsenal's only shadow of a chance in the first half came on 18 minutes when Henry and Reyes worked the ball right to Robert Pires, who forced a save out of Edwin van der Sar. The Arsenal captain was forced to do his own work in pursuit of possession and without complaint but it did not go unnoticed: "Henry for Barça" was the chant from the United fans.
Only in the dying moments of the first half did United's attack spring into life when first Ronaldo went down the left and was treated to the worst foul of the game so far by Lauren when he went past the Arsenal full-back.
As United pressed further, Van Nistelrooy picked the ball up outside the area and hit a shot that Jens Lehmann was forced to tip away into the path of who, with the Arsenal goalkeeper scrambling back to his line, could only sidefoot the rebound into the North Bank.
If the first half represented something of a détente in the recent history of these two clubs, then the beginning of the second was much truer to the old tradition of hostility. Reyes tried to barge Rooney in a race to the ball, but the Arsenal winger's unlikely success only meant that he was caught up in the wreckage of the striker's collapsing frame and was sent head first into the advertising hoardings.
By the time Rooney finally went into the referee Graham Poll's book, however, the game had come alive at last. Ryan Giggs slashed wide when he should have done better from Ronaldo's long ball from the right; Wes Brown threw himself in front of Gilberto's shot; and at long last Ronaldo got the better of Cygan.
Poll's book was filling up fast and the French full-back was next when he swept away the legs of the United winger.
Around the hour, Van Nistelrooy was presented with two of his best chances to score - the first when Sol Campbell misjudged Rio Ferdinand's throughball, the second when Ronaldo slipped in a cross at the near post - but the Dutch striker's sharpness appeared to have deserted him. He was no better later on when Ronaldo headed the ball down to him at a corner.
Van der Sar was equal to the touch that Pires applied to Henry's shot in the 68th minute and, by the time the exchange of chances had begun to calm, Ferguson was off his bench and on his feet in complaint.
Only in the game's very last stages did it catch light again. Neville just missed when he slid in at the back post on to Ronaldo's cross and the substitute Emmanuel Eboue cleared Brown's header off the line. United fought the hardest, but catching Chelsea now will require something more than just effort.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Lehmann; Cygan, Campbell, Touré, Lauren; Gilberto; Pires, Fabregas (Flamini, 80), Hleb (Bergkamp, 73), Reyes (Eboue, 89); Henry. Substitutes not used: Senderos, Almunia (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Fletcher, Giggs (Park, 73); Van Nistelrooy, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Saha, Bardsley, Pique.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordsire).
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