It was a daunting challenge that Chelsea's 10 men laid down at Stamford Bridge in their defeat of West Ham earlier in the day but, even if their pursuit of the champions is ultimately in vain, yesterday told United that this is a fight that is not worth giving up just yet. Asked whether his old rivals still have a chance of the Premiership title, Arsène Wenger indicated with forefinger and thumb that he regards that chance as, he added, "very little" - yet they seem to be odds United are willing to take on.
They were led by Rooney who may, just for the sake of his bank manager, wish to forget about any more talk of odds until the end of the season at least. The nerveless disposition that he has demonstrated in front of goal has brought him far fewer rewards at the bookmakers to whom, it was disclosed yesterday, his debts are as much as £700,000. Yesterday, neither Chelsea's 10-point lead - as it stood at the start of the game - nor the eye-watering amount he owes seemed to burden the man who has led United's revival this season.
In the great tradition of United's encounters with Arsenal this will not rate as a classic - downgraded by the significance that Chelsea's supremacy has stolen from these two teams and Wenger's baffling decision to start with Thierry Henry on the substitutes' bench. It was a decision that looked like a gesture of contempt towards Jose Mourinho - who will have been furious at his title rivals playing a weakened Arsenal team - as well as a signal that Wenger has now firmly switched his priorities to the Champions' League.
In the event of defeat, Wenger looked no less devastated than he normally does when beaten by Ferguson; he stalked the touchline for much of the game, a harassed, disputatious figure. So why rest Henry? He argued that his captain's presence would not have been decisive in the goals that Arsenal conceded although it surely would have made some difference to the chances that Robin van Persie, starting in the Premiership for the first time since 1 February, passed up.
Arsenal are still five points behind Tottenham with a game in hand in the race for the fourth Champions' League place - and their rivals have to visit Highbury - which Wenger must have considered sufficiently surmountable to rest Henry yesterday. The visit to Portsmouth this week, however, would still appear to be the better option for leaving out a player who came on for the last 20 minutes and barely broke into a sprint.
Had the title race been closer than the seven-point lead Chelsea have, Wenger's decision to leave out Henry against United would have done nothing to ease the paranoia of Mourinho. He believes that the Arsenal manager does everything in his power to undermine Chelsea and it is an issue on which the Portuguese coach may yet have his say. At the final whistle, Wenger waited patiently to shake Ferguson's hand. If he was hoping for thanks from the United manager for leaving out Arsenal's inspirational No 14 then he was likely to have been disappointed.
Not since Sylvain Wiltord decided the title at Old Trafford in May 2002 have Arsenal beaten United in the Premiership and, despite a bright start they looked unlikely to change that trend yesterday. The most crucial moment of the first half came two minutes before the interval when, running on to Ruud van Nistelrooy's through-ball, Rooney beat Jens Lehmann and cut back towards goal. With Kolo Touré and Philippe Senderos protecting the goal he aimed his shot inside the near post but Touré's hand - raised, it appeared, to protect himself - deflected the ball on to the post. Despite Rooney's protests, the referee Graham Poll waved him away.
Rooney's goal on 55 minutes began on United's left wing where Nemanja Vidic won possession and gave the ball to Mikael Silvestre whose long cross skimmed the top of Senderos' head before arriving at the feet of the England striker. He took one touch to steady himself and another to smash the ball past Lehmann.
It was not until the 70th minute that Wenger sent on Henry and by then Van Persie had missed the best chance Arsenal had created. Rooney allowed Emmanuel Eboué to slip by him on the goalline on the left side of United's defence and, with the area at his mercy, the full-back picked out Van Persie at the back post - but he slipped on contact and United escaped.
Henry's introduction, and Rooney's goal, gave the game an edge that it lacked before. Rio Ferdinand sent Lehmann down one of the embankments that surround the pitch at Old Trafford. With Abu Diaby and then Freddie Ljungberg also on, however, Arsenal struggled to make a meaningful breakthrough.
The second United goal on 77 minutes was made by Rooney, who held off Senderos' attempts to tackle him as he raced into the area before cutting a cross back to Park, who forced the ball home from close range. They will have to hope that by 29 April, when they visit Stamford Bridge, their season has not yet been pronounced dead.
Goals: Rooney (54) 1-0; Park (78) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Giggs, Park (Evra, 85); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy (Saha, 62). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Brown, Pique.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Senderos, Flamini; Hleb (Ljungberg, 75), Gilberto, Fabregas (Diaby, 70), Flamini; Adebayor, Van Persie (Henry, 70). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Djourou.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Manchester United Vidic, O'Shea, Silvestre; Arsenal Gilberto, Eboué.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 70,908.Reuse content