Arsenal 2 Manchester Utd 2: Wenger admits selection error as linesman rescues Arsenal

Click to follow
The Independent Football

By weekday, a humble team leader in business banking for Lloyds TSB in Norfolk but come Saturday, the sharpest eyes in the Emirates stadium. The linesman Darren Cann was the only man in the place – apart from William Gallas – who saw that Arsenal's equaliser was over the line. Not only that, he also had the courage to raise his flag and change the destiny of this intriguing game and perhaps the Premier League title race too.

Let's hear it for the little man, the referee's assistant who, with a billion pairs of eyes watching this game around the world, was the one person who did not allow his vision to be clouded by the sense of occasion. Imagine the furore if he had got it wrong, of the trial by 1,000 Sky Sports News replays and the endless hand-wringing about touchline technology. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, called Cann "a liar" for his fairly innocuous part in Emmanuel Adebayor's Carling Cup final dismissal, so heaven knows what the insult would have been this time.

Instead, Cann got it spectacularly right. Same too for the referee, Howard Webb, who was later bizarrely singled out by Sir Alex Ferguson for a pro-Arsenal bias – a ludicrous allegation when you stop to think about it for more than a second. In fact, Ferguson launched his first touchline temper tantrum in the 16th minute when Webb rightly booked Patrice Evra for a foul on Adebayor. It is an age-old managerial tactic: put pressure on the referee so he will subconsciously think twice about awarding that same player a second yellow card. Webb held his nerve.

It was the game that the world stopped for and yet it was the officials, the only three men on the pitch who are not millionaires (unless they have had a particularly good year at Cann's branch of Lloyds TSB) who deserve first mention. The rest was an enthralling tussle between two teams and two managers who matched each other all over the pitch, but not without sacrificing some of their own qualities. Gaël Clichy and Cristiano Ronaldo cancelled each other out; both sets of forwards looked isolated and the great carnival of free-flowing football never materialised. The tension, however, was compelling.

It is rare indeed for Wenger to admit that he made mistakes in the selection of his team, conceding that without the injured Robin van Persie the "balance in the final third was not completely right".

The Arsenal manager ruminated afterwards that he could have picked Theo Walcott, Eduardo or Niklas Bendtner instead – although for whom he did not say. "That's my fault," Wenger said. "I'd look at that again. In the final third, we dropped off a little bit too much and that took something out of our game."

Only the true football obsessive will have picked up on that point, but for most the one strange decision from Wenger was substituting the brilliant Alexander Hleb after 80 minutes. In a game in which there was so much talent and technique, the little Belarusian was still the best player on the pitch. His capacity to dribble around opponents without recourse to any great pace or strength is a revelation. Even the Emirates Stadium announcer seemed unwilling to admit that Hleb had left the stage, mistakenly telling the crowd it was the more prosaic Mathieu Flamini who had gone off.

Wenger was unusually direct about his goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, whose misjudgement, albeit minor, played a part in United's immaculately worked second goal. Louis Saha's flick played in Evra down the inside left channel and, as the left-back reached the byline, Almunia came off his line to try to gather the ball. He never got close and when Evra crossed Ronaldo had only to prod the ball into an open goal. It will have made happy viewing for the displaced Jens Lehmann and Wenger said that Almunia had one more game to redeem himself before the grumpy German would get his recall.

"He [Almunia] rushed out to block the cross and I feel he was unhappy with his decision-making," Wenger said. "He left his goal and didn't get the ball, so he'll feel as if he made a mistake. Until now, he has done very well. I believe in sticking with one goalkeeper. You cannot tell him: 'No matter how many mistakes you make, you'll always be my goalkeeper' But you have to give him at least two games."

What is it about Arsenal that makes Ferguson so bolshy? In April 2003, after his team had gained a point in a match that would prove crucial to them winning the title that season, Ferguson marched on to the Highbury pitch to salute the United fans in the Clock End. That was not exactly a move designed to calm the place down, so perhaps he should not be too surprised to have encountered some ripe comments from behind the dugout on Saturday. And what was the "absolute danger" he talked of from the Arsenal fans? A well-aimed ciabatta from a local Islington delicatessen?

Arsenal shaded it on possession, United on the chances they created but there was little else between them. Ronaldo was quiet but scored his team's second goal while it was Clichy's run and cross that led to Arsenal's late equaliser. Kolo Touré and Wayne Rooney battled magnificently, the England striker getting lucky with a deflection off Gallas for the first United goal – from Ronaldo's cross in first half injury-time – but missing with a header on 64 minutes.

The battle between Anderson and Cesc Fabregas was the play within the play. The Brazilian got his opponent booked and was reprimanded elegantly by the Spaniard, who lampooned Anderson's anguished expression. Then Fabregas slotted in the equaliser, his 11th goal of the season, from Bacary Sagna's cross. Owen Hargreaves was off the pace but Evra was a constant threat and the pick of the game's full-backs, who all got forward at some stage.

Arsenal's equaliser was frenetic: a cross from Clichy, followed by Walcott's mishit before Gallas tidied up at the other post. Even Fabregas thought it was Walcott who had scored and, as he celebrated with his team-mate, the Spaniard repeatedly told Rio Ferdinand to "fuck off" for pushing Walcott. It was chaos. But one man knew what he was doing – Darren Cann was already back at the halfway line waiting for kick-off.

Goals: Rooney (45) 0-1; Fabregas (47) 1-1; Ronaldo (81) 1-2; Gallas (90) 2-2.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué (Walcott, 74), Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky (Eduardo 80); Hleb (Gilberto, 80); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Diarra.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown (O'Shea, 71), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Anderson (Carrick, 76), Hargreaves, Giggs; Tevez (Saha, 76), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Nani.

Booked: Arsenal Fabregas; Manchester United Evra, Hargreaves.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Man of the match: Hleb.

Attendance: 60,161.