Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lethal United Punish Arsenal

Wayne Rooney celebrates with Javier HernandezWhen the line-ups for Arsenal's FA Cup sixth round clash with current Premier League leaders Manchester United came in, Gunners fans could have been forgiven for feeling optimistic. Sir Alex Ferguson fielded seven defenders, including the bizarre decision to play John O'Shea in center midfield. Arsenal meanwhile, went with their strongest possible eleven, though of course they were limited due to the absences of Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Alexandre Song.

Quite frankly, the first twenty minutes of the weekend's marquee encounter were pitiful. Passes went astray for United, as the team struggled to cope with the unusual personnel choices. On the other hand, Arsenal kept the ball quite well, but were unable to make any real headway into the United half. Denilson embodied Arsenal's entire approach to the game, as his refusal to play a forward pass, had Martin Tyler's co-commentator calling for blood.

But out of the blue, came the breakthrough. A quick combination between Da Silva brothers Rafael and Fabio, resulted in Wayne Rooney receiving the ball on the edge of the arc who, showing the sort of breathtaking vision that has defined his game for so long, played a perfectly weighted chipped pass into the path of Hernandez, who's snap header was spilled by Almunia, leaving Fabio with the simple task of tucking the ball into an empty net. Rocked by United's goal, Arsenal continued to look uninspiring, and with Sir Alex's men highly dangerous on the break, it was a wonder that Arsenal made it to half time only 1-0 down.

Before the start of the second half, United fans were given a huge lift, as long term injury victim Antonio Valencia came on to replace goalscorer Fabio. Clearly cheered by the substitution, United looked sharp at the start of the second period, and it came as no surprise to anyone that the League leaders found their second goal of the night on fifty minutes. Having received the ball off goalkeeper Van Der Sar, the returning Valencia was given acres of space to run into before sliding the ball off to the brilliant Rafael. With options limited, Rafael was forced to jink past two Arsenal defender, before sending in a cross which was deflected into the path of the on running Wayne Rooney, who headed home from an angle. Clearly demoralized, Arsenal struggled to mount any serious attempt at a comeback, and it was United who created the better chances for the last forty minutes of the game, with Rooney and Hernandez in particular, guilty of missing several very presentable chances.

Most concerning for Arsenal though, was the injury to defender Johan Djourou which looks to have him ruled out for the remainder of the season. With only ten minutes to go, Djourou's shoulder was dislocated by fellow defender Bacary Sagna, while the duo attempted to deal with a cross. If the initial prognosis of this injury is true, then Wenger will find himself relying on the shaky Sebastian Squillaci to anchor the Gunners defense during this last, crucial, period of the season.

So, while one player departed for the season due to injury, another returned after his extended absence. Putting aside what must be Sir Alex's obvious delight at United's place in the FA Cup semi-finals, Antonio Valencia's return must have been the most encouraging development of the entire event. With Nani out for three weeks following Jamie Carragher's disgraceful tackle in last week's match at Anfield, Valencia will be relied upon to provide United with speed and penetration from the wing areas.

Though United will doubtless be thrilled by today's result, the presence of Marseille manager Didier Deschamps in the stands, is a reminder of an even more important match coming up later this week. I would imagine that Valencia will start that one, and Deschamps will be quite worried about the Ecuadorian's presence, especially on the evidence of the second half of this match.

How will Valencia's return impact United's season?

How will Arsenal respond after this latest disappointment?

Who do you fancy, Marseille or Manchester United?

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