MANCHESTER UNITED and Arsenal, the two heavyweights of the English game, slugged themselves to the point of no advantage last night, neither yielding anything to opponents whom they mutually regard as most dangerous to their championship ambitions.
Both teams searched for a decisive moment to handicap the other seriously, only to find it elusive. Instead Andy Cole, with his 19th goal of the season, equalised Nicolas Anelka's opener to preserve United's four-point lead. It was the team in red shirts who left the field more frustrated, however.
Not only did Dwight Yorke miss a first-half penalty but the pounds 12.5m striker fired wide from point-blank range in the closing minutes. He, more than anyone, would have heard the visiting fans singing "you'll never beat the Arsenal" as the players left the pitch.
Not that anyone will find overcoming the Gunners easy, as Cole's goal was the first they had conceded in the Premiership since 13 December. For the first hour of this ruggedly exciting match they were just the better of two good teams and were only denied by United's vibrant finale.
"If we had lost it would have been very hard to catch Manchester United," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said.
It was an important game but the Gunners never looked weighed down by it. Ray Parlour had Peter Schmeichel diving to stop a volley after two minutes and three minutes later Lee Dixon's quick free-kick was just too high.
United had a groggy look to them but if anyone is designed to deliver a wake-up call it is Roy Keane and, after Cole had supplied him with an astute pass, he crashed through midfield like a bulldozer after 28 minutes, leaving two men in his wake before hitting a low shot that David Seaman saved at the expense of a corner.
The home team should have gone ahead after half an hour. Jesper Blomqvist's cross was too high for the jumpers, but Ronny Johnsen collected it at the back of the area and cut inside too quickly for Parlour, whose tackle brought the Norwegian down in the area.
Denis Irwin is the usual United penalty taker, but he was missing because of a groin injury and the job fell instead to Yorke. A mess he made of it, too, chipping it meekly two feet wide of the right-hand post.
Given that Arsenal give goals away like a miser his money, it looked likely to be an expensive miss, and the cost was underlined two minutes into the second half when the visitors took the lead.
Nwankwo Kanu, the villain of Saturday's pantomime with Sheffield United, might as well have disappeared in a puff of smoke for all Jaap Stam could do to stop his twisting run, and the Nigerian appeared to be about to score a sensational goal until Phil Neville's tackle caught the ball just as he was about to shoot. The ball broke to Anelka, who lashed it past Schmeichel.
United were looking ragged but on the hour they equalised against the run of play. Phil Neville had space on the left and used it excellently, curling a near-post cross to Cole, who headed past Seaman from close range.
Cue a United onslaught that should have brought them all three points. David Beckham was brought down by Steve Bould for what looked like a penalty, Bould was booked when he poleaxed Paul Scholes as he burst through, but the chance that United will regret was Yorke's.
Ryan Giggs, on the pitch for the last quarter as he recovers from a hamstring injury, sped away from Lee Dixon and his cross landed perfectly for Yorke's charge. Somehow he pushed his shot wide.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Butt (Giggs, 78), Keane, Blomqvist (Scholes, 62); Cole Yorke. Substitutes not used: Solskjaer, Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn (Vivas, 78); Parlour, Vieira, Hughes, Overmars (Diawara, 87); Kanu (Garde, 62), Anelka. Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Manninger (gk).
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
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