Saha takes shine from Arsenal's record

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 1
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The Independent Football

Arsenal's champagne remains on ice, Manchester United's obituary on file. A year ago, when United drew here, Sir Alex Ferguson walked on to the pitch to salute the travelling support, his clenched fist sending a triumphalist message which proved prescient as Arsenal's title hopes ebbed away.

This year he settled for a handshake with Arsène Wenger before disappearing down the tunnel. He knows Arsenal remain champions-elect, the 12-point lead they hold over United will not be bridged in eight matches. Nor are Chelsea, seven points adrift, likely to catch them.

Arsenal had other reasons to celebrate. They had established a new mark for an unbeaten start to the League season of 30 matches and equalled Burnley's 83-year-old record for an unbeaten run within a single season. Yet it was United who left Highbury the happier. The psychological edge Arsenal's exuberant season had established over them had been broken. When Thierry Henry scored another spectacular goal after 49 minutes it seemed this hold would be cemented but United refused to acknowledge their majesty. They pushed the leaders back and, with four minutes remaining, Louis Saha levelled.

The goal may not change the destination of the Premiership pennant but it will affect the respective teams' approach to Saturday's FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. It could thus enable United to view this season's loss of the title as a blip rather than indicative of a change in the balance of power.

Tellingly United's resurgence came after Ferguson finally deployed his best available XI. With 19 minutes left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, so badly missed this season, came on. He gave the team width on the right. Louis Saha joined the attack, enabling Ryan Giggs, who had moved forward, to switch to the left as Scholes, who started up front then swapped with Giggs, went into central midfield. It was a reversion to United's classic 4-4-2 formation with width and twin strikers. They immediately looked much happier.

While Ferguson was rediscovering his best team, Wenger was tinkering with his. A series of changes designed to protect the lead lost it. Most notably Pascal Cygan came on to sit in front of Gaël Clichy on the left and smother Solskjaer. Cygan clearly had no idea of the positions he should be taking up and was nowhere to be seen when Solskjaer crossed for the equaliser.

Arsenal's sudden loss of belief in these closing stages, as unfamiliar players were tested in battle, underlined how fortunate they have been with injuries this season where key players have usually been available. By contrast United have missed several defenders (one, admittedly, through his own stupidity), Solskjaer and Scholes for long periods. Given an even contest, United will feel after this match, they are Arsenal's equals.

The early exchanges had been even. For United, Scholes might have scored had he not slipped after ghosting behind Kolo Touré in the opening minute. A stunning volley by Eric Djemba-Djemba then brought an alert save from Jens Lehmann. In response both Freddie Ljungberg and José Antonio Reyes brought saves from Roy Carroll.

Arsenal gradually wrested midfield control but Wes Brown, in front of the watching Sven Goran Eriksson, demonstrated he had rediscovered his form with a series of beautifully-timed tackles.

Not everyone was so precise and temperatures rose steadily before reaching a peak when Patrick Vieira clattered into Ruud van Nistelrooy. Though Graham Poll gave a foul it looked a well-timed, but very fierce challenge. Unsurprisingly Wenger and Ferguson had differing views and the fourth official, Alan Wiley, could barely keep them apart as they argued on the touchline. This dispute perhaps contributed to Poll failing to punish later fouls on Reyes, by Carroll, and Giggs, by Sol Campbell. The first should have been a penalty, the second might have been as it was on the very edge of the box.

Arsenal's control was confirmed soon after the break when Henry, fully 30 yards out, thumped a swerving shot over Carroll, the keeper having been wrong-footed by the ball's movement and pace.

The Gunners' coronation seemed imminent but United began to find their old rhythm. Yet while Roy Keane and Giggs both exercised Lehmann, they were vulnerable to the counter-attack, Ljungberg being set free by Robert Pires only to stub his shot under pressure from Giggs. That the winger tracked back 70 yards to do so spoke volumes for United's indomitable spirit.

This soon drew deserved reward. Scholes fed Solskjaer on the right and, though the chance seemed gone when Van Nistelrooy miskicked in front of goal , Saha, behind him, was more careful. United pressed for a winner and might have had it had Van Nistelrooy not headed Giggs' cross straight to Lehmann in the penultimate minute.

Arsenal had chances too, albeit on the counter-attack. A snap-shot on the turn by Henry brought a good save from Carroll, the Irishman also denying Lauren after he had been brilliantly set up by Henry.

It would have been unjust if either team had won. The last four meetings between the teams have ended in stalemate which suggests it might be wise for both to practice penalties ahead of Saturday. It also suggests Arsenal are not yet as superior as the League table indicates.

Goals: Henry (49) 1-0; Saha (86) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 6; Lauren 5, Touré 6, Campbell 6, Clichy 6; Ljungberg 5 (Cygan, 82), Vieira 6, Edu 7, Pires 6 (Bergkamp, 83); Reyes 5 (Gilberto, 77), Henry 7. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Kanu.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll 6; G Neville 5, Brown 8, Silvestre 4, O'Shea 5; Fletcher 4 (Solskjaer 6, 71), Djemba-Djemba 5 (Saha 6, 58), Keane 6, Giggs 7; Scholes 5; Van Nistelrooy 4. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), P Neville, Butt.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire) 6.

Bookings: Arsenal: Clichy. Manchester United: Scholes.

Man of the match: Brown.

Attendance: 38,184.

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