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.