Ten command performances- Football: Win which put Arsenal on course for the title

Ten command performances that lit up 1998
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The Independent Online
AS THE Arsenal players celebrated with the adoring pocket of their supporters tucked into the corner of Old Trafford, you just knew. It could not have been more obvious if a ghostly hand, taking time out from picking National Lottery winners, had descended from the Manchester sky and pointed at the yellow-shirted band before sprinkling them with stardust. Here were the next Premiership champions.

Arsenal's 1-0 win over Manchester United in March was not as dramatic as their famous title-clinching victory at Anfield in 1989 but it was almost as conclusive. The pretenders had been to the home of the champions and won with more ease than the scoreline suggested. They were still only second in the table but, as you looked from the jubilant Arsenal players, their faces glowing with confidence, to the wounded figure of Peter Schmeichel limping from the arena, there was a sense of the passing of an era.

Arsenal, unbeaten in nine games, had arrived at Old Trafford nine points behind but with three matches - all away - in hand. United were still favourites but canny punters had already taken the precaution of accepting Manchester-based bookie Fred Done's premature offer to pay out on bets backing them for the title.

While the visitors were without David Seaman and Ian Wright, neither were missed. United's injury problems were more grave, Ryan Giggs' absence would prove to be as telling as the decision to play John Curtis at right- back.

Curtis, a promising and cultured England youth international, is still to recover from the chasing Marc Overmars gave him. Overmars was in prime form and Curtis was removed to left-wing, then the bench, by the hour. He has since been supplanted by Wes Brown.

Even so, when he left the field United were still level, Overmars having missed two good chances. He had also had a decent penalty appeal, for a foul by Curtis, denied.

United had created nothing, only a wayward pass by Lee Dixon and a linesman's error giving Andy Cole a brace of chances which he squandered. Their attacks, lacking width, had foundered on the French axis of Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira. If anyone got past them they met Tony Adams and Martin Keown in "they shall not pass" mode. After that stood Alex Manninger, such an able deputy some doubted if Seaman would win his place back. This defensive excellence was the bedrock of Arsenal's championship campaign, the Dutch partnership of Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp, with support from Ray Parlour, the cutting edge.

A dozen minutes from time, with United re-organising after injury, Arsenal's pressure told. Headers from Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka released Overmars who sprinted through to score. United's agony was complete when Schmeichel, in a rash foray upfield, damaged a hamstring.

"We looked tired," said the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson.

"United are still in the best position," said Arsene Wenger of Arsenal. Only one of them was telling the truth.

It would be another five weeks before Arsenal assumed the leadership as United, closing with five wins and two draws, fought all the way. But Arsenal's games in hand proved decisive. They won the next eight matches, sealing the title with a crushing 4-0 victory at home to Everton on 3 May.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Curtis (Thornley, 52), G Neville, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen (May, 78), Scholes, P Neville (Solskjaer, 76); Sheringham, Cole.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour (Garde, 68), Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Wreh (Anelka, 65), Bergkamp.

Referee: A Wilkie (Co Durham).

Attendance: 55,174.

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