The Emirates Demolition, Part Two
It feels like it's Champions League semi-final time already: United go to the Emirates and destroy Arsenal's hopes with exhilarating counter-attacking football, with such pace and precision that actually takes your breath away.
That's what happened last May and that is what happened today. It was easily our best performance of the season but Arsenal must be worried that their supposed title rivals have a habit of hitting their peak at the Emirates - it does not reflect well on their title prospects?
And they actually had a golden opportunity today. OK, Van Persie and Eduardo were both out, leaving them without a recognised centre-forward but one would think they have enough skill and panache in that team to capitalise on the absence of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the latter an unexpected casualty of the last training before the game.
Yet Arsenal never had a proper go: Arshavin outpaced Brown once or twice in the opening 20 minutes and he had a very dangerous shot going just wide but United were the better team and past the half hour mark we were rewarded with an absolutely brilliant goal.
The inclusion of Nani ahead of Valencia raised a few eyebrows ahead of the game but he did brilliantly to get away between two defenders then beat Denilson with ease. His high cross would probably have found Park at the far post but Almunia palmed it into his own net. First blood United - at least Arsenal held on longer than they did last May.
Four minutes later the game was almost over: Park played the ball out of the area to Rooney who released Nani on the right then sprinted into the box to be in position for the return pass which was perfect and Rooney wasted no time in sweeping it into the net. Magnificent counter-attack, reminiscent of the third goal of that Champions League semi-final.
Arshavin could have pulled one back just before the break but Arsenal could have few complaints about the scoreline, especially as Nani also had a golden chance. Our much-maligned midfield was dominant, Fabregas was anonymous among the trio of Fletcher, Carrick (who was particularly excellent, performing the deep-lying playmaker role to perfection) and Scholes. The less said about Denilson, the better though I'll admit that Alex Song did quite well.
Arsenal looked out of sorts at the start of the second half, there was no sense of that controlled momentum that could engineer a fightback from two goals down. And their numbness soon cost them another goal: Carrick chipped a ball over the midfielders for Park who simply ran from near the halfway line without any challenges to evade and slotted home in clinical fashion. This is his third goal against Arsenal, they are his favourite opponents by far.
United just sat back and soaked up the pressure after this but then again we did not really need to press things. It was a little nerve-jangling when they pulled one back: initially we looked rattled but we soon regained our composure and played out the last 10 or so minutes with admirable confidence. We should have embellished the victory right at the death but Rooney fired wide with the goal at his mercy.
Arsenal did have chances, yes, but overall it was a devastating display of counter-attacking football, vintage Manchester United. The selection, the tactics were spot on, the substitutions were well-timed and made sense - this was kind of perfect for us. And there was not even a harsh red card for Fletcher to leave a bitter taste amid all the sweetness. The record of the last five games against Arsenal now reads four wins, one draw - keep it going!