United in peril of creating own version of the 'Keegan choke'

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0

Emirates Stadium

Sir Alex Ferguson has lost Premier League titles on the season's closing day before – or in those fraught last few weeks in May that he once said can have a direct effect on a manager's digestive system – but he has never lost a title in the circumstances that he is threatening to lose this one.

This year's squeaky-bum time is not so much a neck-and-neck race – although that is what it has become with Chelsea – as the story of how Carlo Ancelotti's team have reeled Manchester United in after an improbable change in fortunes. United are in danger of throwing away the lead they held over Chelsea, one considerably larger than the lead they closed on Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United in the 1995-96 season.

At half-time at Stamford Bridge on 1 March, United were 1-0 up against Chelsea and looking at opening up an 18-point gap on the defending champions. They lost the game in the second half, cutting their lead to 12 points over Ancelotti's team, who were then fourth in the table. Should United lose to Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, Chelsea will have closed the gap to zero and lead the Premier League on goal difference.

It was while he was in the process of tossing away a 12-point lead to United in 1996 that Keegan donned a large pair of studio headphones and subsequently lost his rag in a live interview. That is the size of the potential choke we are talking about here – if United throw this one away, all bets are off. Even Keegan did not blow it in such grand style.

It is typical of United's season of contrasting fortunes – are they Ferguson's worst team since 1993 or his greatest in the making? – that this United side could blow a crucial game against a club who have already taken a lit match to their own season.

With the pressure off and nothing of note to play for, Arsenal put on a performance worthy of a team with title-winning aspiration. They won the game with a goal from Aaron Ramsey, the first since he broke his tibia and fibula against Stoke City in February last year, and for a large part of the game Arsenal were a more attacking, aggressive force than their opposition.

For their long-suffering supporters it was, at last, a result in which they could glory. But what are the consequences? Could it be that this victory will only make Arsène Wenger more entrenched in his view that no major changes are needed this summer? For every silver lining at Arsenal, there is that inevitable cloud. One win over United does not change the fact that Wenger needs two new central defenders, as well as a central midfielder and a striker at the very least.

Nonetheless, they were excellent yesterday, particularly in the central midfield pairing of Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, who played together in the absence of Cesc Fabregas, withdrawn with a thigh injury picked up in training.

If Fabregas does leave for Barcelona this summer then the future looks tolerable, although that does not mean Arsenal will not need at least one more midfielder in the summer. Yesterday they started strongly, with an in-form Robin van Persie a crucial factor, and even when they did not take advantage of their bright start they resisted the trap of sliding away in the second half.

The game featured two penalty appeals, both of which should have been given by the referee Chris Foy and his assistant Andy Garratt. In the first half the linesman failed to spot Nemanja Vidic reach out a hand and touch a cross from Theo Walcott on the right wing, aimed for Van Persie. With three minutes left Gaël Clichy brought his studs down on Michael Owen's calf in the same area and got away with it.

Everywhere United excelled against Schalke last Tuesday, they failed to repeat yesterday. The likes of Javier Hernandez, Park Ji-sung and Michael Carrick all failed to spark in the same way. The difficult question for Ferguson now is whether he rests players for Wednesday's return leg against Schalke in anticipation of Chelsea's visit on Sunday.

It is a Hobson's choice and at this stage of the season a manager fighting on more than one front can do little more than pick his best team – give or take the occasional change – and hope the adrenaline gets his players through. United's misfortune is that they are incapable of building any momentum to extinguish the hopes of their title challengers once and for all.

When John Terry spoke, in the aftermath of Chelsea's win over Tottenham on Saturday, about the danger Arsenal posed to United at home it sounded – on recent evidence, at least – like wishful thinking. But they got the basics right yesterday. In goal Wojciech Szczesny was solid, pulling off a fine save from Nani on 76 minutes. The full-backs Bacary Sagna and Clichy were dominant on the wings.

The only goal came a matter of minutes after Ferguson had substituted his midfielder Anderson for Antonio Valencia on 55 minutes, in what looked like an attempt to force the issue with Arsenal. The move for the goal began with Ramsey in the hole Anderson had vacated. Van Persie ran at United down their left and when Ramsey popped up in the box, the return pass found him in space, allowing him to hit the corner of the goal.

There was the suggestion of a nasty off-the-ball tangle between Van Persie and Rio Ferdinand on 84 minutes, in which it looked like Van Persie had been the aggressor, although no replay was forthcoming. Even Owen admitted on Twitter that his own penalty call was just as valid as Arsenal's in the first half, although that was not a sentiment shared by his manager.

United are still in the box seat in this title race and a win over Chelsea on Sunday will put them six points clear with two games to play. As no pattern has ever emerged in this title race, it would be unwise to assume that yesterday's defeat was the start of a damaging slump for United. But they do not want to be the team that blew a 15-point lead over Chelsea – and that itself can affect the most single-minded of teams.

Substitutes: Arsenal Arshavin 6 (Nasri, h/t), Squillaci 6 (Djourou, 69), Eboue (Walcott, 78). Manchester United Valencia 6 (Anderson, 55), Berbatov (Hernandez, 73), Owen (Carrick, 84). Booked: Arsenal Ramsey, Song. Manchester United Rooney, Park, Fabio.

Man of the match Wilshere.

Referee C Foy (Lancashire)

Attendance 60,107.

Race for the title

Top three's remaining fixtures:

* Manchester United
Chelsea (h) Sunday
Blackburn Rovers (a) Sat 14 May
Blackpool (h) Sun 22 May

* Chelsea
Manchester United (a) Sunday
Newcastle (h) Sun 15 May
Everton (a) Sun 22 May

* Arsenal
Stoke City (a) Sunday
Aston Villa (h) Sun 15 May
Fulham (a) Sun 22 May

Life and Style
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
Life and Style

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

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone