Played off the Park

United see off Gunners but Wenger says ‘don’t write off title hopes’
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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger last night offered a prickly riposte to his side's poor record against Manchester United and Chelsea, insisting that no conclusions could be drawn from another Old Trafford defeat and that observers should "be calm" before writing off their title aspirations.

United's 1-0 win, courtesy of Park Ji-sung's fourth goal in seven matches against Arsenal, extends Wenger's winless run against the two outstanding sides of the past decade to 11 games, but the Arsenal manager was dismissive of the record. "Why do we always seem to lose these big games?" he said. "You are a football specialist and I leave this analysis to you. Why do you ask me because you know everything? I've spoken about the game. You have to be calm and be realistic and objective. United won the game tonight and you don't necessarily have to go to big conclusions. I believe we are here to analyse one game – the game of tonight. Be calm." Arsenal's next chance to put that record right comes when Chelsea visit the Emirates on Monday 27 December.

United, who leapfrogged two points clear of Arsenal with a game in hand and a plus-five goal difference over them, owed the result to a solid defensive display and commanding midfield performances from Anderson and Darren Fletcher. The penalty Wayne Rooney blasted over with just over 15 minutes left, when Gaël Clichy had handled in the area, was a small blemish.

"It was an unusual penalty from Wayne. He normally keeps the ball down and I've never known him put one over the bar," manager Sir Alex Ferguson reflected. "That gave Arsenal some impetus but our back four were fantastic; absolutely magnificent." United's defence is certainly beginning to assume the qualities of their last title winning season two years ago. They have conceded just four goals in eight games.

Wenger was derogatory about the state of the Old Trafford pitch which he said was "poor... bouncy and slippery, as well" and had prevented either side from operating to their technical best. But he was reluctant to suggest that the surface did not befit a Premier League fixture on an evening when United extended their unbeaten league run to 16 games. "If I ask you do you want a good pitch or a bad pitch, what do you say?" he said.

Wenger also dismissed the suggestion that his side might have risen better to the challenge after United's Patrice Evra had cast aspersions on a "training ground" culture. "I don't give too much importance to what people say quite frankly. I try to be as objective as I can and make my mind up on what I see," Wenger said. "What I feel doesn't matter. We lost the game and I think, to be as objective as I can, the game was very intense. We were up on the intensity and organisational level but overall I think Man Utd defended very well."

Ferguson lamented the loss of Park for seven games after 26 December for the Asian Cup but was focusing already on Sunday's visit to Stamford Bridge. "We have got a difficult game at Chelsea next Sunday – that's more important now," he said. "We are starting to get there in terms of our form. It's improving. If the back four continue to play like that, it will give us a great chance."

Rio Ferdinand admitted that United had won a war of attrition rather than offering a glittering display. "In these games you don't always play well. But we wanted to get three points and we did that. We didn't show that much in the way of silks [skill] but three points is three points."

United, taking on an Arsenal side with the Premier League's best away record, came up short, creatively. Their best efforts fell to Marouane Chamakh, who missed with a header and had a shot blocked by Nemanja Vidic. Arsenal's physicality suggested that they might have sought to prove a point but they actually struggled for composure, collecting four bookings, and Jack Wilshere looked overwhelmed in the Arsenal midfield. Arsenal – and particularly Cesc Fabregas, who appeared from the bench in the second half – were furious that Ferdinand escaped without a booking after a dangerous leap into Bacary Sagna. To compound matters, Song was then booked six minutes from time for chopping down Patrice Evra in an even worse challenge.

* Ferguson was also withering last night about Blackburn's decision to sack his old friend Sam Allardyce. "Sam phoned me at 3.10pm and said he was coming to the game and wanted a cup of tea," the United manager said. "He phoned me again at 4.30pm and said he's been sacked. I have never heard such a stupid decision in my life. It is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what they are doing up there but it confounds common sense. I would not like to have to follow him."