There have been occasions, in Arsenal's previous 49 Premiership matches, when the luck went with them, when a fortuitous refereeing decision kept their unbeaten run going. Ask Portsmouth, who were denied victory at Highbury a year ago after Robert Pires took a tumble to win an undeserved penalty.
It is an accepted truth that in football these incidents eventually even themselves up and at Old Trafford yesterday Arsenal's luck ran out. Unfortunately for them it was in the biggest match of the season that the champions found themselves on the wrong end of two decisions by referee Mike Riley which brought Arsenal's unbeaten run to a halt and breathed fresh life into Manchester United's uneven season.
The first decision came 18 minutes into a tight first half. Edu threaded a pass through United's square defence for Freddie Ljungberg to run on to. Rio Ferdinand came across to cover, but as he went to challenge the Swede poked the ball out of his reach. Ferdinand kept going and bowled Ljungberg over. It should have been a free-kick to Arsenal and a red card for Ferdinand, but Riley, who was some way distant, waved play on. Ferdinand went on to play superbly as Arsenal, for the first time this season, failed to score.
The second decision came 17 minutes from the end with the contest still stalemated. Kolo Touré lost the ball to Ruud van Nistelrooy. United worked the ball to the right and Wayne Rooney wriggled his way into the box. As he pushed the ball past Sol Campbell the defender briefly put out a foot then quickly withdrew it. Too late. Rooney seized his opportunity and fell towards the turf. To Campbell's fury Riley, who has a habit of giving United penalties at Old Trafford, awarded them his eighth in eight appearances here.
Van Nistelrooy, who in this fixture last year missed a last-minute spot-kick which would have defeated Arsenal, calmly sent Jens Lehmann the wrong way. Gary Neville's run along the touchline and goalline, arms outstretched and face wreathed in smiles, illustrated how much this meant to United.
In injury-time, with Arsenal pushing forward, Louis Saha led a counter-attack. It ended with Rooney sweeping in Alan Smith's cross to commemorate his 19th birthday and give the scoreline a misleading certainty.
To those who regard Arsenal as unfortunate, United will argue that they should have had a second penalty eight minutes after the first when Ashley Cole brought Cristiano Ronaldo down. But goals change matches and that incident might never have happened if Arsenal had not been committed to attack. The victory cuts the gap between the clubs to eight points and keeps Arsenal's lead over second-placed Chelsea at two. It also means the 58-match unbeaten run Milan achieved in Serie A under Fabio Capello a decade ago will remain the best in the major European leagues.
Less easy to discern is the long-term psychological impact this result will have. United's confidence will be restored, especially as they won without Roy Keane. Arsenal, who were able to field Patrick Vieira, will no longer feel unbeatable. When Milan finally lost in March 1993 they won only one of their next nine games. That will not be Arsenal's fate but their response underlined how much defeat hurt with rumours of a post-match fracas in the tunnel. As players and coaching staff from both teams argued, Ferguson reportedly had food and soup thrown at him and had to change his shirt before giving a post-match interview.
Lehmann had started a row with the entire United team after the second goal and at the final whistle Thierry Henry argued with Roy Carroll, and Campbell, Cole and Dennis Bergkamp harangued Riley. When they were dragged away Arsène Wenger took over. The Arsenal manager complained about Riley's errors and his failure to protect Jose Antonio Reyes, who he felt was the victim of a systematic campaign to kick him out of the match. It did look that way but United could say the same of Ronaldo who was clattered after just 39 seconds by Cole. Riley was lenient then, and remained so, not reaching for his yellow card until the 35th minute. He eventually cautioned five players. In the stands Arsenal fans, in a reference to the American tycoon with designs on United, chanted "USA, USA" and "there's only one Malcolm Glazer".
Though the game was always absorbing, clear chances were sparse. A Vieira error gave Paul Scholes, then Ryan Giggs a sight of goal after eight minutes but Touré, then Campbell, bravely blocked. In the second period Arsenal again had the bulk of possession but United created the best of the few chances. From one Ronaldo headed over while Lehmann made a good save from Gabriel Henize's deflected, swerving drive. Then came the penalty. After it Arsenal pressed but Carroll was never threatened and United would have wrapped up the match in normal time had Giggs beaten Lehmann when freed by Scholes.
Goals: Van Nistelrooy (73) 1-0; Rooney (90) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo (Smith, 85), P Neville, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy (Saha, 90). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Brown, Miller.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Edu, Reyes (Pires, 70); Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Van Persie, Taylor, Fabregas, Cygan.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United: G Neville, P Neville. Arsenal: Cole, Vieira, Edu.
Man of the match: Ferdinand.
- More about:
- AC Milan
- Dennis Bergkamp
- Jens Lehmann
- Premier League
- Rio Ferdinand
- Robert Pires
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Wayne Rooney