A team in crisis facing the runaway league leaders. A team in decline facing the new kings of English football.
That’s how it had been billed.
Luckily for us, however, Manchester United don’t do scripts, if anything they enjoy nothing more than defying them.
Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford on the back of 14 wins in their last 15 games and, for the first time in almost a decade, they looked to carry a genuine threat, considering their scintillating form had yielded back-to-back wins against Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund.
And yet, much as they had done in a similar situation on a wet October afternoon nine years ago, United stood up and were counted.
Granted, the win won’t mask the lack of an imposing midfield, where Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley were out-passed by their counterparts, nor will it make United favourites for the title.
What today’s win will do, however, is fill David Moyes and his men with confidence, for they displayed the grit and combative approach proper of every United side.
The United manager opted for an offensive line-up, with Shinji Kagawa, Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney on the pitch at the same time, while Phil Jones and Michael Carrick were tasked with controlling the midfield.
Yes, Chris Smalling can’t play at right-back and Phil Jones is a strange selection in midfield when the £27m-rated Marouane Fellaini is on the bench, but there they were putting tackles in and launching themselves in front of their opponents.
United’s heart on sleeve attitude worked wonders in the second half, but in the first 45 minutes the Reds carried a much bigger attacking threat, albeit without creating any clear cut chances.
When the first opening came after 28 minutes, Robin Van Persie – who else? – dispatched brilliantly, heading Wayne Rooney’s corner past Wojciech Szczesny to give United the lead.
It was the Dutchman’s third goal in three games against Arsenal since leaving the North Londoners and United were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty soon after as Olivier Giroud barged into Rooney in the penalty box.
The United striker was among the many who put in an impressive shift, fighting on every ball and getting the crowd into the game.
Singing section or not, Old Trafford today reminded everybody how important a role it can play for the team, with the Stretford End and K-Stand constantly bellowing out chants of “20 times, 20 times Man United” to remind Arsenal fans who the biggest club in the land is.
As Tom Cleverley replaced Nemanja Vidic at the beginning of the second half after the Serbian had suffered a head injury in a collision with David De Gea, United sat back and invited Arsenal on.
The Gunners, however, failed to produce any clear cut chances and even though United put their fans through the mill in the second 45 minutes, it was them who had the best chance to score, Rooney scuffing his shot wide with 30 minutes to go.
Ryan Giggs and Marouane Fellaini replaced Kagawa and Van Persie and United held on for what could be a crucial win.
Manchester’s other team are now eight, Chelsea are within a point, but United are in crisis. And so be it, then.
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