Everton, Portsmouth and yes, Celtic, are one thing, Manchester United quite another. For 45 minutes Arsenal continued their smoothest of starts to the season, which had brought 15 goals in four straight victories, and were comfortably ahead with Andrey Arshavin's beautifully struck effort. Little more than a quarter of an hour later they had been knocked rudely out of their stride by two goals, the second of them headed into his own net by Abou Diaby.
So after United's hopes of a record fourth championship in succession seemed set to take as significant a dive as Eduardo last Wednesday, the sort of resilience they have so often shown in the past carried them through. This morning they stand third in the table despite making such a stuttering start to the campaign while Arsenal purred.
Renowned spirit apart, it was one of those turnarounds that occur from time to time without any logical explanation. Arsenal had planned their tactics and played their football just as they would have wished, only to lose control almost as soon as Ben Foster's save with his foot just after half-time prevented them taking a two-goal lead. At least United's revival, driven by Darren Fletcher's work ethic, Ryan Giggs's improvement on a dire first half and Wayne Rooney's refusal to submit, brought to life the packed house as well as a game that contained nine yellow cards and a late dismissal for Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger.
Wenger's displeasure, expressed in nothing more shocking than kicking a water bottle, was understandable. "When you play a game like that, to go home without any points is very frustrating," he said. "We've shown great spirit and quality. We were the better team but could not finish the game off and lost it." He could not resist a jibe or two at the officials, suggesting United's equalising penalty was "Old Trafford-ish", but then undermined his own case by admitting that Arsenal panicked for both goals and that there was no need for Manuel Almunia to have brought down Rooney.
Sir Alex Ferguson was understandably buoyant after United brought about a sea-change in the second half for the second week running, this time against more durable opposition than Wigan. "It's always an uphill task against teams of Arsenal's capability and we had to dig deep," he said.
Ferguson admitted before the game to wanting to match up with Arsenal's new tendency to use three central midfielders and therefore put Michael Carrick, Fletcher and Giggs in there, to challenge the much improved Alex Song, Denilson and Diaby. For Arsenal, Eduardo appeared only as a late substitute, although Wenger, for all his outrage at Uefa's decision to charge the striker for his dying swan act against Celtic, insisted it was only because three games in eight days would have been too much for Eduardo at this stage of his recovery.
Amid much loose passing and many free-kicks genuine chances did not materialise until a quarter of the game was over; when they did they were Arsenal's and good ones. Emmanuel Eboué picked out Robin van Persie's diagonal dart and the Dutchman came back inside Nemanja Vidic to have his shot deflected for a corner. His flag-kick was better placed than some earlier efforts, forcing Foster at full stretch to palm it away only as far as Arshavin who opened up his body before side-footing with deliberation but just too wide.
The first-half play was scruffy and was typified by Giggs twice giving away possession as his team broke forward with a man over. Apart from a shot wide by Fletcher, United's only opportunity before the interval followed William Gallas's foul on Patrice Evra, allowing Rooney to curl a free-kick wide from 20 yards.
Six minutes from the interval came a major talking point and then a goal, with Arshavin the central figure in both incidents. Arsenal were furious to be denied a penalty as Fletcher sent him crashing to the ground but were celebrating within a minute as he took Denilson's pass and shot so fiercely from outside the penalty area that Foster could not keep it out of the net despite reaching the ball with both hands.
The temptation at half-time after such a disjointed showing from United must have been to send on Dimitar Berbatov or Michael Owen. Ferguson resisted it and his team all but conceded a second goal immediately. Arshavin produced a sudden burst of acceleration to fizz past John O'Shea to the byline and cut back a cross that was met by Van Persie at close range and kept out only by Foster's left foot.
Van Persie would almost deceive the goalkeeper with an inswinging corner that bounced against the crossbar, but on either side of that moment there was an equaliser and then a second goal for United. Just before the hour Giggs played his best pass of the game to send Rooney clear and past Almunia, who, unlike Celtic's Artur Boruc, made no attempt to pull away from the challenge and brought the striker down. Rooney composed himself with head bent in Cristiano Ronaldo style for the penalty before coolly despatching it.
Five minutes later, following a foul out on United's right by Gaël Clichy, Giggs placed a free-kick between Arsenal's defensive line and the goalkeeper. Almunia did not come to claim the ball, Diaby decided to head it and send it tamely into his own net.
The visitors had fallen away, their disarray summed up by Eboué's dreadful dive, earning his team's sixth yellow card. In five minutes of added time, Nani should have scored and in the last of those minutes Van Persie beat Foster but Gallas, who had headed down to him, was clearly offside.
Wenger's frustration got the better of him and he was sent from the dug-out – though he did not know where to go – for the apparently heinous crime of kicking a water bottle.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Rooney
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content