Arsenal 2 Manchester United 1: Arsenal conjure up thrilling finale to breathe fresh life into tortuous race

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The Independent Online

Savaged on Saturday, saved on Sunday. Jose Mourinho waits in grim expectation for the killer blow from Manchester United in this Premiership title race and still it does not come. It has taken Sir Alex Ferguson's team seven months to build a lead of six points, and yesterday it took seven minutes for their afternoon of triumph to collapse.

Thierry Henry will haunt the dreams of Ferguson this week. The Frenchman ghosted through the United defence to score the goal that completed an astonishing comeback for Arsenal and an afternoon of redemption for Mourinho and Chelsea. With seven minutes remaining, the old Scot was contemplating leaving the Emirates Stadium for the first time with a lead of nine points; by the time they waved him out the gates he had to settle for six.

Mourinho has escaped, the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, has triumphed and now, in a title race that defies prediction, it is Ferguson who must question the nerve of his team. They took the lead on 53 minutes with Wayne Rooney's goal and then in seven shocking minutes at the end succumbed to Robin van Persie and Henry.

When the winner hit the net, Ferguson shut his eyes and tipped back his head. Even 65-year-old veterans of football management can still be left in total incomprehension at the cruelty of this game.

Ferguson has six points on Mourinho but now must reawaken the spirit of a team who looked numb with shock as they took their exit from an exultant Emirates Stadium. There was a derisory handshake between Ferguson and Wenger at the end although the United manager could hardly meet his old adversary's eye. In the season that was supposed to mark the rebirth of United, Wenger's team have beaten them home and away.

On the final whistle, Henry did not want to leave the pitch, although there were times yesterday when it had been easy to forget that he was on it. The Arsenal captain shrugged and grimaced his way through the game and he tumbled insincerely to try to win a penalty from Gary Neville in the first half.

This was Henry at his worst until the last minute when he was at his very best to head home Emmanuel Eboué's cross.

Victory came at a cost for Arsenal who will, most likely, be without Van Persie until at least April after he broke the fifth metatarsal bone of his right foot lunging ahead of Neville to score the equaliser on 83 minutes. That may hurt them later in the season but the moment of victory felt priceless. In fourth place, Arsenal are one point behind Liverpool and only six away from Chelsea.

Could Ferguson have done better? Wenger spoke of an anxiety among the United players in the minutes leading up to Arsenal's comeback, an unwillingness from them to kill off the game. The Arsenal manager conceded that the first half belonged to his opponents but that his side came into their own after the break and Rooney's goal was scored on the counter-attack.

That goal, headed in at the back post from Patrice Evra's cross, owed much to a lapse in concentration by Gaël Clichy, who left Rooney unmarked. It was Rooney's first in nine games, since he scored against Manchester City on 9 December, but he took it from an unfamiliar position in an unusual United formation.

Rooney started on the left wing and moved to the right as Ferguson switched Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs around behind his lone striker Henrik Larsson. After his goal, Rooney had a series of conversations with Ferguson on the touchline that suggested the England striker was unsure of exactly what was expected of him. The goal aside, the system did not seem to get the best from him.

Ronaldo was also subdued, Giggs below par and Paul Scholes seemingly at fault in the build-up to the first Arsenal goal. Cesc Fabregas won an untidy scrap with Scholes for possession in the midfield and Tomas Rosicky crossed. Henry tried to flick the ball with his instep but missed completely and Van Persie came in late to force the cross up into the roof of Edwin van der Sar's goal.

The first half had been prickly, tense and redolent of the bad feeling that accompanied the days when this fixture was as good as a title decider.

There were three bookings in the first 30 minutes as the referee, Steve Bennett, tried to exert control of a match that teetered on the brink of trouble. Kolo Touré smashed into the back of Henrik Larsson, then Giggs swept away the legs of Fabregas. The old enmities were well and truly established.

The two sides came closest to chaos when Eboué seemed to strike Rooney as the two tangled down Arsenal's right flank and a loose arm thrust in frustration from the United man caught the full-back. Pathetically, Eboué dropped to his haunches. It was scarcely a blow and Rooney should have laughed it off. He took the safe option, rubbing his own jaw to indicate he, too, had been wronged.

Rooney struck the bar in the closing stages of the half and Clichy kicked a header from Larsson off the line but it was not until the 53rd minute that United broke through. They had looked solid, with Nemanja Vidic dominating Henry and Evra impressive. Yet it was down United's left flank that Arsenal came to fashion their two late goals.

By the time Van Persie came on, Arsenal looked desperate. The Dutchman was the spark of their revival but it was Henry who completed it. He can be an awkward, complaining type but on days like these he has a knack of making you forget it all with one decisive act.

Goals: Rooney (53) 1-0; Van Persie (83) 1-1, Henry (90) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué (Hoyte, 90), Senderos, Touré, Clichy; Hleb (Van

Persie, 67), Flamini (Baptista, 79), Fabregas, Rosicky; Adebayor, Henry. Substitutes not used: Denilson, Almunia (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Rooney, Carrick, Scholes, Ronaldo (Heinze, 89); Giggs; Larsson (Saha, 81). Substitutes not used: Brown, Fletcher, Kuszczak (gk).

Booked: Arsenal Touré; Manchester United Giggs, Evra, Ronaldo

Referee: S Bennett (Kent)

Man of the match: Fabregas.

Attendance: 60,128.

Curse of the dreaded metatarsal

The Arsenal striker Robin van Persie yesterday joined David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi on the list of leading players who have fallen foul of the curse of the metatarsal.

A scan confirmed the Dutchman's injury, which he sustained when scoring the equaliser - his 13th goal of the season in all competitions - against Manchester United.

Rooney missed six weeks after the Manchester United striker sustained a similar injury to his right foot in a 3-0 defeat against Chelsea in April last year. The setback almost cost him his place at the World Cup finals. Barcelona have been without Messi since November after he broke ing the same bone in his left foot.

The metatarsals are the five long bones in the forefoot which connect the ankle bones to the toes. They help to spread the weight of the body and move to cope with uneven ground. The first, second and fifth metatarsals are the most commonly injured. Van Persie has broken the fifth metatarsal on his right foot.

Preston's David Nugent suffered the same injury in March last year and returned to action after six weeks. His remedy - drink plenty of milk.

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