Sunday, May 1, 2011

United Minus Giggs Allow Title Race To Become Interesting

Aaron Ramsey scores Arsenal's goal United this season have been strong, experienced and resilient, capable of pulling results out of games that looked beyond them. Key to their countless Houdini acts has been the inspirational Welshman, Ryan Giggs. Over the years, Giggs has grown to define United and in particular the Ferguson era. This season, perhaps even more so than in the past, the Red Devils have relied on him as their savior, a get-out-of-jail-free-card, that must be carefully placed in a limited number of circumstances, Giggs is 37.

Earlier this week, Sir Alex Ferguson made the decision not to include Ryan Giggs in his match day squad for a visit to Arsenal, similar to a choice he made several weeks ago, when the veteran was consigned to the stands for a semi final against a certain Manchester City side. That match ended in a 1-0 defeat for United, and they were to meet the same fate at the Emirates.

Giggs, as mentioned before, was not in the line-up, but several others were, Anderson and Chicharito both started, while Fabio maintained the starting position which he has occupied for several weeks now. For Arsenal, a Cesc Fabregas injury came as a blow to Arsene Wenger's plans, the Spaniard was replaced in the line-up by the young Aaron Ramsey.

Arsenal started the much better side, their passing was fluid, and they kept possession for most of the first fifteen minutes. United defended doggedly, closing down angles, not giving the Arsenal attack time to create an opening of any danger, while limiting themselves to only the odd foray forward.

However, the first half was not to be defined by Arsenal possession, but by a moment of controversy which, had Arsenal not gone on to win the game, would have been flagged up by Wenger post match. A cross whipped in by Clichy was about to be headed home by Robin Van Persie when Nemanja Vidic allowed his flailing arm to bat the ball aside for a corner. Incensed, Van Persie charged on the assistant referee, rightly angry about Vidic's unpunished action. Had referee Chris Foy seen the hand ball, not only would Arsenal have won a penalty but Vidic would surely have been sent off for the denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity. Off the hook, United fought on.

The game became much more even as the half wore by, and that pattern continued into the second period before the game's turning point came after fifty-six minutes. Robin Van Persie held the ball up on the edge of the box, before smartly squaring for an onrushing Aaron Ramsey who side footed the ball past Van Der Sar, and into the corner of the net. At 1-0 down, a reaction is always expected from Manchester United, but it took about ten minutes for them to be eased out of the lethargy which had so marked their performance thus far.

Rooney and Nani both went close with free kicks, and the latter had a shot saved when through on goal, albeit at a slightly difficult angle. Dimitar Berbatov was introduced late on for the ineffective Javier Hernandez, and Michael Owen followed soon after, on in the place of Michael Carrick.

Pressing for an equalizer, gaps were apparent in the United rear guard, but Arsenal failed to pounce on them, with the Gunners wasteful in several good positions. After conceding late goals in a number of games this term, the Arsenal back line was understandably nervous, but they held up well against mounting late pressure from the visitors. With Vidic up as an auxiliary center forward, United began to throw balls into the box and Owen, turning on the edge of the area was sliced down by a defender, only for the referee to wave away  United appeals for a penalty.

After four long minutes of stoppage time, the final whistle blew, a moment greeted by roars of celebration from the Arsenal fans, whom, well still knowing that their side's title chances are minimal, enjoyed one of the team's greatest moments this season.

Meanwhile, the United players trooped off in silence, on their way to what I'm sure was an absolute lashing from Ferguson. United were lifeless for large portions of the game, and their seemingly defensive minded tactics were made to pay, as Aaron Ramsey found a winner. Quite simply, Arsenal wanted it more, their players were frequently quicker to the fifty-fifty balls, and, inspired by a raucous home crowd, they attacked with verve and excitement.

Key man Wayne Rooney was effectively made a non factor by Alex Song's conscientious man marking, and the inability of a Giggsless United midfield to create openings rendered arch poacher Javier Hernandez obsolete.

While this defeat will come as a blow to Ferguson's men, they are unlikely to be discouraged. With just three games remaining, the team has a three point lead at the top of the Premiership, and a win at home to Chelsea next weekend would all but mathematically guarantee the title. Returning to start that game will I'm sure be experienced duo Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, both of whom should be well rested following a stint on the sidelines.

There is no question that Arsenal has blown the title race wide open with their win but, in all honesty, it's still United's to lose.

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