Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1: Hargreaves conjures vital strike to finish Arsenal

It takes a certain kind of confidence to tell Cristiano Ronaldo to stand aside when there is a potentially crucial free-kick to be hit, but then there has been a certain kind of confidence about Manchester United all season. Enter Owen Hargreaves stage right: an unlikely match-winner in a title race that is starting to look entirely predictable.

From the ruin of Arsenal's season so Manchester United march on to what will be, barring a collapse, their 10th Premier League title as early as the end of the month. In fact, their vanquishing of Arsenal was so complete that even Sir Alex Ferguson could spare a kind word for his old adversary, lavishing Arsène Wenger's team with the kind of praise that comes easily in victory. United could win the title in two games' time at Stamford Bridge on 26 April, provided they beat Blackburn next Saturday, so superior is their goal difference to that of Chelsea.

When United needed to summon a final, defining act it was Hargreaves who stepped up to beat Jens Lehmann from 20 yards – the holding midfielder who against Roma on Wednesday had thrown off the shackles and taken on a new attacking role for United. This was only Hargreaves' 15th start in the Premier League this season and, while it was not his best performance, there is certainly the sense he still has something to prove. From his adversaries in the Arsenal midfield, from Cesc Fabregas and Alex Hleb, those reserves of inspiration seem to have been used up long ago.

When Hargreaves took over the grandstanding duties from Ronaldo in the 72nd minute, Arsenal were still alive in this game. They had taken the lead through Emmanuel Adebayor, they had clipped the post after Ronaldo's equaliser from the penalty spot, but the fatal signs of their own fragility were still evident. Just as had happened against Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday, their first goal was almost immediately followed by the needless conceding of a penalty and so their grip on the game started to slip.

Wenger would later rail about the conspiracy against his team but in this absorbing game there were some simple lessons that Arsenal have been taught again and again at the season's most crucial moments. No one, not even Ferguson, would dispute their supremacy in the first half in particular, but they cannot write this game off as another dose of outrageous luck. In United's moment of need they could bring Anderson and Carlos Tevez off the bench, they could rely on a goal from a man who had scored only one all season. Arsenal just hoped for salvation from the same old faces.

They had their moments – Nicklas Bendtner even hit the post in the very last minute – but there is a whiff of the victims about Arsenal. Some fundamental belief deep inside this team has expired and, while they still pass the ball around beautifully at times, and applauded their supporters like fallen heroes at the end, it was always hard to envisage them winning their final five games and turning the season around.

There was a notable performance from Lehmann, who has hitherto proved a mutinous deputy to the first-choice Manuel Almunia, now injured. The German did well to save from Wayne Rooney, who missed too many chances, 10 minutes before half-time. Alexandre Song made a mess of a long pass and, through on goal, Rooney's shot clipped the goalkeeper's heel and rolled wide.

That was United at their most effective, hitting their opponents early and often. Rooney terrorised Song, who struggled on his first Premier League start of the season and only the fifth of his Arsenal career. Arsenal were more intricate, breaking out with sequences of passes dictated by Hleb. Their best chance of the first half was on 13 minutes when Rio Ferdinand blocked a close-range shot from Adebayor. Then, three minutes into the second half, the England centre-half had one of those moments that will have made him wish Fabio Capello had come out late after his half-time tea.

As Robin van Persie's cross flew across the area, United's back line was distinguished by lots of grimacing faces and "you go first" body language. Arsenal had recycled a botched short free-kick, Van Persie burst down the left and crossed and Ferdinand and Michael Carrick failed to clear. Edwin van der Sar stuck his hands out, pulled them back in and, on his own, Adebayor deflected the ball into the goal– albeit with his forearm. It got worse three minutes later when Van der Sar, who had been having a good game, was forced to save Ferdinand's clearance at his own goal from Adebayor's cross.

Then, as they had at Anfield on Tuesday, Arsenal conspired to be the architects of their own downfall. Barely six minutes since they had taken the lead, Carrick played a harmless looking ball into the area and Gallas made a half-hearted attempt to disguise what was a pointless handball. There was not much argument when the referee Howard Webb pointed to the spot.

The penalty in front of the old Stretford End was a strange affair; Webb correctly disallowed Ronaldo's attempt for Park Ji Sung wandering into the box. Second time around Ronaldo did exactly the same staggered run-up again and put the ball in the opposite corner. It was not one of the winger's best games, but his 38th goal of the season took some nerve.

Arsenal did not give up after that, striking the post when Gaël Clichy's cross was deflected off Wes Brown in the 67th minute, but this team have the tragic aspect of a side for whom bad news is just around the corner. With little more than 20 minutes left Lehmann blocked Rooney's shot, the ball fell to Patrice Evra on the edge of the box where he was fouled by Gilberto and so the end of Arsenal's season began.

Standing over the free-kick, Hargreaves must have said something convincing to Ronaldo to be allowed to take it. It was a beauty: curling and dipping millimetres over the wall and fading away into the corner of Lehmann's goal. The Arsenal goalkeeper did not even bother to move. It might have been more emphatic coming from Ronaldo but it was certainly, in the context of this title race, no less significant.

Goals: Adebayor (48) 0-1; Ronaldo pen (54) 1-1; Hargreaves (72) 2-1

Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Pique, Evra; Carrick; Ronaldo, Hargreaves (Giggs, 90), Scholes (Anderson, 55), Park (Tevez, 55); Rooney. Substitutes not used: O'Shea, Kuszczak (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Touré (J Hoyte, 85) Song, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué (Walcott, 61), Fabregas, Gilberto, Van Persie (Bendtner, 76); Hleb; Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Djourou, Fabianski (gk).

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester United Brown, Carrick; Arsenal Van Persie, Gallas, Lehmann, Hleb, Adebayor.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 75,985.

Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
Tattoo enthusiast Cammy Stewart poses for a portrait during the Great British Tattoo Show
In picturesThe Great British Tattoo Show
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?