Day when spirit (and a referee) restoked Red Devils

There was another occasion when a player of uncommon promise scored for Manchester United on his 19th birthday and until around six o'clock last night there was no question it had a unique significance in the history of England's most fabled football club.

Brian Kidd scored it at Wembley in 1968 when United won their first European Cup. But who now would dismiss the idea that the one Wayne Rooney knocked beyond the Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to end an unbeaten run of 49 Premiership games, and the ever-increasing sense that the Highbury team had elected themselves to a one-club élite in this land was any less vital to the preservation of Old Trafford as a theatre of realistic dreams.

This, after all, was supposed to be the bleak thunder-and-lightning night when the old warhorse, Sir Alex Ferguson, was cut away from all the old underpinning of his strength. It was supposed to be the time for Arsène Wenger, having got him into a corner, to apply a killing sword stroke.

But some old warhorses just don't know when it is time to trot off down the high road of history, and if you needed any more compelling evidence that he was alive again, and calling the odds with his usual frenzy, you only had to see him railing against the referee Mike Riley for the awarding of four minutes of stoppage time.

As United led by a goal, a lead that if preserved would bring new belief to the crisis-ridden club, Ferguson berated the official, who as far as Arsenal are concerned is their new public enemy No 1.

Twice Riley stepped controversially on the United side of one-eyed vision. First he allowed Rio Ferdinand to stay on the field after television reruns insisted he had fouled Freddie Ljungberg and deserved a red card. Then, as Arsenal played silky possession football without suggesting they wanted more than a point from this engagement, Riley awarded the penalty about which Arsenal will fret for some considerable time.

These were two gifts not from the gods but an official who was now being assailed with all that trademark Glaswegian venom. For Old Trafford, a place of laughter and cheers now after more than an hour of what seemed for many to be unbearable tension, it was a case of happy days are here again.

But then what is the depth of that happiness? Ferguson no doubt will be delighted by signs of restoked fire in the Old Trafford dressing-room, but in truth there was nothing to suggest that Arsenal are about to surrender the vast psychological riches created in a superb run of often luminous performances.

Arsenal had the worst of the luck yesterday, unquestionably, but this was above all a day for spirit and determination, and here Ferguson's team was not found wanting. Perhaps his greatest satisfaction was the superb form of Ferdinand, who having survived his perilous moment proceeded to produce a defensive performance as secure as it was at times exquisite. Ferdinand may have been spotted leaving a disco in the small hours of the morning last week when he was supposed to be mourning a lost grandparent ­ but if he was under any kind of cloud in his manager's mind at the start of yesterday's hostilities it had surely cleared utterly at the moment of triumph.

Ferdinand was operating on the highest quality of radar defence. He read every point of danger from Arsenal and perhaps inevitably Thierry Henry, the most celebrated of all Arsenal's great talents, again failed to deliver that vital touch of cold steel when it mattered most.

In that department of resilience and determination the truth is that Ferguson, a resurrected Ferguson, had the strongest hand.

No one expressed a willingness to fight beyond the intrusion of bad form and failed confidence more than Ruud van Nistelrooy. The man who was at the centre of last season's tawdry eruption of Arsenal bile was presented with a jagged-edged return to a moment of truth after Rooney had won his questionable decision when Sol Campbell, panicked perhaps by both the youngster's determination and reputation, stuck out his left leg.

That put Campbell in the vulnerable position of a desperate defender and maybe a little self-analysis should follow his refusal to shake hands with his England team-mate at the end.

All of this though, plus the memory of the mob scene that engulfed him in the corresponding fixture last season, flew by Van Nistelrooy. There was never a doubt that he would claim the most important penalty-kick that anyone at Old Trafford could remember. Lehmann dived to his right and the Dutchman sent the ball to his left.

It remained only for Rooney to complete United's march back to competitive viability when the substitutes Louis Saha and Alan Smith helped overrun an extended Arsenal.

In fact, that moment of decision could have come somewhat earlier when Ryan Giggs, who is now battling to produce the last embers of the talent that once made him so remarkable, froze on his shots after being put clear by Paul Scholes.

The pain of Giggs, such a key figure in the great days of Ferguson, reminded us that these are days when seamless triumph can no longer be taken for granted. However, there is no doubt that United, eight points behind Arsenal in the Premiership when they feared it could be 14, are alive again. It was not quite what Wenger had in mind.

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