Fletcher in line of fire as Wenger cries foul play

Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1

The game was huge and significant and quite often brilliant but it was never going to outgrow the mound of baggage labelled Eduardo da Silva. If there was any doubt about this it disappeared with another item of luggage carrying the name tag W Rooney.

Unlike the Eduardo travesty in mid-week, the Rooney penalty which snapped Arsenal's extremely impressive hold over the reigning champions was inevitable. Manuel Almunia could only have offered himself and his team up more spectacularly if he had brought along his own altar of sacrifice.

But then if you doubt that football's diving problem really does warrant retrospective video inspection, you should take a look at the Rooney re-runs. The United forward entered his dive trajectory fractionally before he collided with the Arsenal goalkeeper. Of course he did. He is a pro. The opportunity came on a silver platter.

Wenger said the penalty award was "Old Traffordish", which made you wonder quite what category in which to place the Eduardo affair. Outrageously dishonest might cover it but before he left the scene of one of his most biting disappointments the Arsenal manager had widened the debate still further – and not to the satisfaction of anyone who likes to believe that football hasn't become a wasteland of sporting values.

Wenger thought the systematic fouling performed by one United player – he didn't cite Darren Fletcher by name but left little doubt that it was he whom had in mind – was a problem more serious than the diving pandemic.

He said: "I think it is difficult with diving. Sometimes players dive as a way to escape being hit. The borderline between being sensible, being shrewd and being a cheat can be very slim. To assess it would be very difficult. There is no common sense in the Eduardo situation [his charging by Uefa and possible two-game ban for "deceiving a referee" based on video evidence] because if Uefa had said, listen, before the season starts that they would do this, fine. But suddenly, out of an emotional situation in Scotland, we have this.

"There are other points that for me are more urgent [than diving] – players who play only to make fouls. And who are never punished, who make repeated fouls, and are never punished. And who get out of the game without a yellow card. That for me is more anti-football than a player who did what Eduardo did."

Wenger was asked whether he was referring to Fletcher, the one United player who consistently challenged, legally or otherwise, the control of the middle line of Arsenal's 4-3-3, Emmanuel Eboué, Denilson and Abou Diaby, and was fortunate to escape the concession of a penalty when he clattered into Andrei Arshavin without making any contact with the ball. "Why do you say the name?" asked Wenger with a dry smile.

He was also asked: "Why do they get away with it and Arsenal don't?"

"I don't know. You should ask the question to the referees," he replied. And then he added: "Look at how many deliberate fouls some players make and get away with. I think it's a bigger problem because it cuts the flow of the game. People come and pay to see football, they do not come to see free-kicks. I don't know [if United set out deliberately to foul Arsenal]. You will have to ask them."

The more this intelligent and so often inspiring football man talked, the more obvious it was that if Uefa has backed into the Eduardo issue without due process, or due thought, it has still stumbled on to an onerous duty that is never likely to be addressed by individual managers. Wenger draws a line between cheating and persistent fouling, performs another flip of moral acrobatics, and where is the game? Acknowledging a huge and debilitating problem but also aghast that Uefa has given itself the huge burden of dealing with it on a permanent and consistent basis.

It was a relief to talk about the match, and here Wenger's frustration could be rather more easily understood. Indeed, when Arsenal's late equaliser was wiped out, quite legitimately because William Gallas had strayed offside, narrowly but clearly, Wenger might have been excused head-butting a water tower had a bottle not been more conveniently placed on the touchline. "Yes, I was frustrated," he said, "but it was a good kick."

That he should pay for it by being banished from the touchline by the word of an indignant fourth official was so bizarre even the embattled Wenger could not suppress a smile. He was right, certainly, in his claim that Arsenal had been the stronger side. Had Almunia kept his head, and Diaby not betrayed a powerful performance with an own goal of criminal negligence, Wenger's men would surely have claimed the points, which might have made him rather more appreciative of the apology heading his way from referees' supervisor Keith Hackett over the ludicrous touchline censure.

Sir Alex Ferguson said United just about deserved the win, but he was going easy on a team as cautious, at times even passive, as his selection had suggested they might be. Rooney found himself largely on his own, and when Dimitar Berbatov came on he wasted a chance that might have provoked some of the impressive inter-play that was on display at Wigan last weekend.

Arsenal, even without Cesc Fabregas, had an impressive coherence and when Arshavin swept them into the lead it was hard to believe they would surrender so easily such a brilliantly achieved advantage. This was made still more difficult to imagine by another superb performance Thomas Vermaelen, a £10m signing which is so quickly looking like another authentic piece of Wenger genius.

If only everything in football was quite so simple as finding another bargain for the ages.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Foster; O'Shea, Vidic, Brown, Evra; Fletcher, Giggs (Berbatov, 85), Carrick; Valencia (Park, 63), Rooney, Nani. Substitutes not used: Kusczak (gk), Neville, Owen, Anderson, Scholes.

Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Denilson (Eduardo, 79), Song, Diaby; Eboué (Bendtner, 71), Van Persie, Arshavin (Ramsey, 81). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Silvestre, Wilshere, Gibbs.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral)

Booked: Manchester United Evra, Brown, Rooney; Arsenal Song, Van Persie, Gallas, Almunia, Eboué, Sagna.

Man of the match: Vermaelen.

Attendance: 75,095.

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