Rooney close to boiling point but player antics leave Poll without a prayer

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The Independent Football

The sight of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira squaring up in the tunnel was not the happiest augury for a night of sweet reason - or football. Then it turned ugly. Ugly in a way that a flurry of punches from the captains could scarcely have deepened. Indeed, that might just have burst a boil of considerable malignancy.

If it should happen that Manchester United do indeed rise up now and chase Chelsea into a serious title race it would be a resurrection of astonishing dimensions. Also, it would be a diamond of effort mined in a football morass.

In the end there was indeed glory in United's 4-2 defeat of Arsenal but to get to it, to leave the spirit and all those once-soaring ambitions of their victims imprinted on the soles of their boots, they had to negotiate the first half of a match that was at one point in danger of representing the nadir of football's descent into a culture of rampant cheating.

The first half was quite sickening in its deceit and its soul-sapping cynicism.

Ashley Cole should have been sent off in the first minutes for a dive that was shocking even by today's vertiginous decline of standards. Every tackle was a time bomb inviting refereeing error. Graham Poll, who carries the biggest reputation of all English officials, was entitled to a degree of sympathy because his job was insanely difficult. He didn't have to officiate. He had to pray that someone would find a moral compass.

Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson, who, we know well enough, can sometimes be the most incendiary figure in all of football, may just have been that man. Whatever the Manchester United manager said at half-time, it clearly transformed his team. It brought Wayne Rooney back from the brink of another plunge towards the self-destruction of a sublime young talent. It channelled the maddeningly firefly ability of Cristiano Ronaldo into a match-winning, two-goal performance. It made a team out of a nervy, fractious gang threatening at any moment to turn into a rabble.

Unfortunately, Wenger could work no similar effect. Arsenal in the second half were the same parody of the team that last season persuaded some judges that they might just be the best team in the history of English club football. Last night that idea was caught in the wind and whisked away ­ perhaps for ever.

United, led brilliantly by a Ryan Giggs who is beginning to luxuriate in the warming blast of an Indian summer which refuses to quit, played real football in that second half which, who knows, might just have caused a flicker of concern on the high, imperious forehead of Jose Mourinho.

Rooney, having been rescued from his worst demons, began to dig into his best instincts, and a free-kick of his smacked against the crossbar. Ronaldo, who it seemed might give way to the sleek Louis Saha as early as half-time, took a lead from Giggs to play with a much more biting relevance. The result was that United, even when Mikaël Silvestre was dismissed, displayed a superior force and coherence.

It was an extraordinary march away from the anarchy threatened in the tunnel when the captains Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane squared up to each other. That was the grim evidence that the wounds that came at Old Trafford when United broke Arsenal for the first time in October were as far as ever away from healing. Those wounds have been re-doubled in the psyche of the now surely deposed champions Arsenal.

There was nowhere for them to go to soothe the pain last night. Not only had they been beaten soundly at the end, but also their nerve and their competitive will had been cruelly exposed.

For Vieira, the scale of the defeat was particularly huge. He had been elated by his headed early goal, but his influence was eroded steadily by the growing belief of United.

In the end he, too, carried a heavy burden of responsibility for the worst aspects of a game which in so many ways held up a mirror to some of the most depressing trends in the Premiership. The inescapable conclusion was that as Rooney entered again his own zone of extreme danger ­ nudged there by the relentless baiting of the crowd ­ Vieira made his own contribution to the boy's crisis. He went down in exaggerated distress and for what reason? It was hard not to believe it was for the blatant purpose of having Rooney sent off.

That indeed would have been a disillusioning moment in the life of a team who so recently carried English football's most thrilling hopes. Now, Arsenal must hope to rescue something in Europe. How will they do it? With renewed belief, maybe, in what they used to represent. Or, perhaps with some moral re-armament. That, you have to suspect, is what it will take.