The embraces between the players before the kick-off were as fulsome as ever. They showed for all to see that Arsenal, here in the last chance saloon, were ready prove that the agonies they had suffered at Anfield could be put away and the embers of this season rekindled for one week more at least.
There was some unanticipated encouragement, too, from a Manchester United defence which at times, in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, was to plumb such depths at times that Sir Alex Ferguson can count on nothing in Barcelona next week. When Edwin van der Sar put his hands out for Robin van Persie's cross, then took them in again as Rio Ferdinand stared disbelieving into the whites of his eyes and Arsenal went ahead, it was no more than United had coming to them. "I heard someone shout 'keeper's'," Ferdinand said unconvincingly at the end. "The ball's on my head so I could have headed it."
The fragility which is present when Vidic is not was just as evident when Emmanuel Adebayor crossed low and hard from the right seconds after Arsenal went ahead. The ball skidded off the turf into Ferdinand's shins and plopped into the Dutchman's hands.
So how, after Anfield, could Arsenal not have held on for more than six minutes, drawn breath and perhaps prevailed? Answers to that are beyond Arsène Wenger. The only individual who did not see Arsenal concede a penalty seconds after equalising at Anfield last Tuesday was Sir Alex Ferguson – who was halfway down the back staircase on the way to his car, convinced Arsenal were through, when he heard the roar which accompanied Ryan Babel's tumble.
How extraordinary that the man who should have allowed history to repeat itself here should be William Gallas, the very man who had publicly despaired of the naïvety which allowed that Anfield penalty. It meant that Anfield was no fluke. Those fatal flaws were all too real and this time it was Wenger who was unconvincing. "Because we have been beaten recently just after goals [have gone in] we have become a bit more cautious [after scoring]," was his explanation.
When Wenger also insisted last night that his side have been a credit to the Premier League and that he will continue with his policy of blooding youth, Alexandre Song was the player he chose as his exemplar. "I bought him two years ago and played him today in a massive game but he showed he has massive quality. He was not like that two years ago."
But United revealed in two moments why Song was no more effective here than Phillipe Senderos at Anfield. Cristiano Ronaldo, latching on to Patrice Evra's first-half ball down the left flank, flicked the ball over Song's leg, skipped to the byline and levelled for Wayne Rooney. Jens Lehmann blocked well. Song's misjudgement, which left Rooney chasing through one-on-one with Lehmann was excruciating. His manager's verdict suggests he is, contrary to comments he used in defeat, "idealistic" about the players he has around him.
As Cristiano Ronaldo danced around the ball at the corner flag in the dying minutes and Justin Hoyte ploughed into him for good measure, Ferguson could reflect that, for all the weaknesses which may cause him a sleepness night or two before Barcelona, his spending has served him well. Wenger had it right when he was told that Ferguson had conceded that Arsenal deserved more from this match. "He knows a thing or two about football," he said.Reuse content