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Rambo draws first blood as Arsenal keep title race alive

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0

Ramsey 56

Aaron Ramsey – nicknamed ‘Rambo’ – scored his first goal in nearly 16 months as Arsenal deservedly beat Premier League leaders Manchester United to all but secure a top four finish and a Champions League berth next season. It was only their second league win since the Carling Cup final at the end of February. Although realistically too little too late in terms of their own title hopes, it gives Chelsea the opportunity to overhaul United at Old Trafford next weekend.

Ramsey, making only his second league start of the season, came in for the injured Cesc Fàbregas (thigh) as the only change from the side beaten in the last minute by Bolton the previous weekend.

Szczęsny

Sagna– Djourou– Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Ramsey

Wilshere

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

The Bolton defeat had brought to an end an unbeaten league run of 16 games, but draws in five of the six games preceding it had already holed Arsenal’s title challenge below the water-line. In reality, they were playing for little more than pride and their Champions League place here.

A familiar first half story

Arsenal bossed the first 45 minutes without forcing United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar into a single save.

Walcott was a constant threat from the right (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Much of the home side’s early threat came down the flanks. As early as the third minute, Theo Walcott put in a dangerous cross from the right. The ball was half-cleared to Jack Wilshere, who screwed his hurried shot wide from just inside the box. Walcott was then unable to control a centre from the other side by Gaël Clichy, scooping over the bar at full stretch. And the England winger again was in position to latch onto a Wilshere cross from the left, only for Patrice Evra to intervene just in time.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half, however, should have resulted in a penalty just after the half-hour. Nemanja Vidić had earlier escaped without conceding a free kick after sliding into Wilshere on the edge of the United area when he stuck out a hand to prevent a Walcott cross from reaching the head of Robin van Persie. It was a clear penalty, but neither referee Chris Foy nor his assistant spotted the infringement.

United had clearly come to soak up pressure initially and were subsequently reduced to the occasional counter-attacking foray, with Javier Hernández frequently the target for quick balls out of defence, but it was not until a tame effort by Anderson two minutes before half-time that either side registered their first shot on target. It had been that kind of half – never dull, always tense, rarely thrilling.

Arsenal take the lead and successfully defend it – hallelujah!

The second half saw United pushing forward with a bit more adventure. Twice in the opening ten minutes of the half they earned free kicks in dangerous positions, but Wayne Rooney saw his effort pushed away by the diving Szczęsny, and then Nani fired wide.

Ramsey's deft finish was enough to secure all three points (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But it was Arsenal who broke the deadlock with a typically incisive attack. Alex Song intercepted a long ball out of the visitors’ defence, van Persie surged forward, drawing defenders to him, before laying it back to Ramsey just inside the area. The Welsh captain’s precise low drive found its way just inside van der Sar’s right-hand post.

The goal forced United to come forward even more, but although they looked threatening on a number of occasions this was not the irresistible force we have seen so often in the past. Hernández narrowly failed to get his head to a cross. Another Rooney free kick floated straight into Szczęsny’s arms. Nani wasted a four-on-two break by placing his effort too close to the big Polish keeper.

Of course, Arsenal never make defending a lead look easy. Always willing to spring forward at pace, they twice wasted late opportunities to put the game beyond United’s reach. On both occasions van Persie was the culprit, first overhitting a cross as Ramsey and Andrey Arshavin (a half-time substitute for the hamstrung Samir Nasri) burst into the box, then wasting a four-on-three as he put too much weight on his through-ball for Wilshere.

And they always looked nervous when forced to retreat towards their own goal, having to survive two heart-in-mouth moments in the closing minutes. With just two minutes of normal time remaining, substitute Michael Owen raced after a through-ball and tangled with Clichy, with the left back appearing to step on his calf just inside the box. This was almost as clear a penalty as Vidić’s earlier handball, but again the officials missed it. As much as Sir Alex Ferguson complained about it afterwards, it was very much a case of two errors cancelling each other out. And finally, in the last of four minutes of added time, Ramsey conceded a free kick in a similar position (and at the same end) to the one which had led to Liverpool‘s last-gasp 102nd-minute equaliser a fortnight ago. This time, however, as the entire stadium held its breath, Nani’s shot flew harmlessly into the wall.

Despite a few scares, Arsenal had held on for what is likely to be little more than a Pyrrhic victory. But a small consolation is better than none at all.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was, for the first time in several weeks, unequivocally delighted with his team’s performance:

We had a good performance that had everything in it; discipline, fighting spirit and our usual passing game. Until we scored the goal, I feel we completely controlled the game. Then, because we have not won a lot recently, we tried to protect our advantage and were more under pressure. Overall, I believe we deserved to win the game.

He also singled out goalscorer Ramsey:

I am very happy for him, when you think his incident happened 14 months ago and he now looks to be back to his best. If you look at the age of the team today, I think it’s a big encouragement for the club and for the team. We had a very young midfield and were still very positive in our display.

Despite defeat here, he still backed United for the title:

I still make Manchester United the favourites because when you play at home for the title you see an advantage. But if we want to have a small chance, it’s in our interest that Chelsea win [at Old Trafford] and for us to win our games. After that, we could be back mathematically but I still think Manchester United has an advantage playing at home.

Although they became understandably nervy towards the end, this was exactly the kind of solid Arsenal performance which has been lacking over the past two months. As a unit, the eleven worked hard to deny United time and space. Song, Ramsey and Wilshere formed an energetic trio in the middle of the field which complemented each other well and gave fans a glimpse of what a Fàbregas-less midfield might look like. Song’s defensive work-rate is a natural foil for his two British teammates. Wilshere has the greater range of passing at this stage, but Ramsey is the more likely goal-getter and neither is shy of making a challenge. Collectively, all three were excellent throughout.

Walcott’s pace also offered an excellent outlet, and on another day he could have been involved in at least two goals. And even Arshavin showed a great team ethic in his 45 minutes on the field – a willing runner in attack, and contributing at least three solid tackles to help his team out as United cranked up the pressure in the last half-hour.

Defensively Arsenal had a few scary moments, but the back four generally coped well, with Laurent Koscielny the pick of the bunch and Wojciech Szczęsny commendably calm and dependable behind them.

It was just a shame that it took United to bring this kind of performance out of Arsenal. If they had played at even 90% of this level throughout the past few weeks, then the home draws against Sunderland, Blackburn and Liverpool would have been victories instead, and they would be at least level on points with United at the top of the table. But what’s done is done. Or not done, as the case may be.

Although victory kept Arsenal’s title hopes mathematically alive – six points behind with three to play – it would be more realistic to say that it solidifies their prospects of a top three finish and the not inconsiderable bonus of automatic Champions League qualification which comes with it. Wins in two of their last three games will secure that objective. It isn’t silverware, but it is a worthy prize nonetheless.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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