Fuming Ferguson fears for his safety as passion spills over

Few consolations drawn as crowd animosity compounds referee 'favouritism'
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The Independent Football

As if Arsenal's late equaliser had not been enough to turn his face puce, Sir Alex Ferguson was left apoplectic by the actions of the home fans around his bench. He did not hold back in a verbal assault that put Arsenal's proud new stadium firmly in the dock.

"Our own bench were getting terrible abuse from people two or three feet away," the Manchester United manager fumed. "There is a lack of security here. It is absolutely disgraceful the abuse you and your staff take.All sorts of things are screamed and shouted at you. There is an absolute danger here."

Ferguson had initially incurred the wrath of the crowd after vehemently disputing a free-kick awarded against Patrice Evra in the first half. He angrily remonstrated with the referee, Howard Webb, and had words with the fourth official, Alan Wiley.

Ferguson also complained about Webb's performance, despite having said before the game that the official was "the best of the lot. I'm glad he's in charge". Last night he said: "It is very difficult for the referee. I think that Howard Webb has a great chance to be the top ref, but today was a big game for him and at times he favoured Arsenal."

A game to stop the world, as Arsène Wenger had promised? Hmm. Perhaps not quite. Amid the recriminations there were too many comedy capers in front of goal for that. But by the end, it was one to stop the hearts of Wenger and Ferguson, who even in the collective experience of 30-odd years cannot have witnessed too many more dramaticdenouements in this fixture.

Wenger promised beforehand that this match would be a beautiful work of art. For sheer unpredictability it was a vividly entertaining abstract work, and one that will hearten their principal rivals, Liverpool and Chelsea, because of the manner in which both defences were found wanting at crucial moments.

Ultimately, this confirmed that United are capable of eventually exposing any rearguard; even one which has the temerity to believe it can withstand their lightning-swift breakaways. For much of the first half Arsenal showed their retrieval capabilities, with Kolo Touré and captain William Gallas putting in some exquisitely timed challenges when Manuel Almunia's goal came under threat.

Yet by the time United stole the lead in added time before the interval, there had been huge hints that Cristiano Ronaldo's work on the right might prove profitable. The goal was barely what United merited, yet the potential always resides within them. But we also learned fromArsenal's response at crucial moments that, for all thatintuitive passing universally admired this season, embracing the vision of Cesc Fabregas and the delicate touch of Alexander Hleb, there is a durability and resolve about them. They twice refused to capitulate when one sensed their undefeated record was seriously in jeopardy.

As always in a game of this nature, subplots abounded, and not merely those concerning the sometimes fractious relationship between the managers. Emmanuel Adebayor claimed he had rejected overtures from Old Trafford last season. And, intriguingly, Ferguson conceded that his scouting network had missed Fabregas completely at Barcelona. But then when you have Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez at your disposal, it is the kind of admission that you are prepared to make. Fabregas's burgeoning talent as a 17-year-old had prompted Wenger to make the extravagant claim that was the best player he had ever seen at that age. The words were uttered to the former Arsenal goalkeeperBob Wilson, who had queried whether Pele might not be rather more worthy of that accolade. "Pele was a striker, not a creator," had been the Wenger reply.

Arsenal transformed themselves. In the first half, the home side had fluttered prettily around the visitors' area, but the equaliser was decidedly un-Arsenal-like, owing more to sheer determination than fluidity. Fabregas, in such a rich vein of scoring form, tore along the touchline after scoring. Wenger clearly expected a hug from the midfielder. Fabregas thought better of it, and danced past him, probably to the Frenchman's relief. He is not that kind of character.

In general, Wenger's emotions are kept in check. It takes something exceptional to induce a red rage. When he disputes a decision, he reminds you of a man irked by just having received a hefty electricity bill. In contrast, Ferguson can resemble a man who has just received a several thousand-volt charge of the stuff.

Both managers would probably have accepted honours equal at 1-1 before both defences went missing towards the end. The most fleeting of handshakes at the final whistle as they passed each other was all we expected from those old feuding adversaries, but it scarcely did justice to a contest that turned, tortuously so, for both defences when you least anticipated it.

Watch Arsenal at Slavia Prague in the Champions' League on Sky One, 7.45pm Wednesday