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Monday, 29 April 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: Isn't he on our team?

Arsenal 1 - 1 Manchester United

Yesterday's game was one of fluctuating elation and frustration. It still felt surreal seeing the league's top scorer in a Manchester United shirt at our place, but hopefully it provided some kind of closure for the whole debacle. I stressed before the game how badly I wanted Arsenal to win, and I don't think I was too blinded by impartiality to think, as I still do, that it could have been our day.

The guard of honour that had been built up by fans and the media passed by with nothing controversial to speak of save a loud but not deafening chorus of boos. The Arsenal team and bench both looked strong again, despite the absence of Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere from the starting lineup. This in itself was promising: in the past when two or three first team players have been unavailable the team has looked flimsy on paper. If nothing else, replacing one extraordinary attacker with three very good ones has improved the squad depth.

The game's goals originated from players on both sides seemingly forgetting that Robin van Persie was a United and not an Arsenal player. In the second minute, the dutchman himself, apparently suffering momentary amnesia, pinged a pass straight to Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs and in one slick move (Cazorla - Podolski - Rosicky) Arsenal had the first goal. Theo Walcott just about put enough power on his shot to see it squeeze under David de Gea and into the net.

Elation. The cameras showed that Walcott had been just offside, but none of the officials or the opposition players noticed and, especially when you're playing United, it is easy to make the 'these things even out over a season' argument. For the rest of the first half Arsenal dominated but in their usual frustrating fashion by which they passed the ball around the outside of United's penalty box without really threatening to find the final ball. Most of the attacks were down the right flank, and I lost count of how many times Bacary Sagna got in a good position to cross and then decided against it.

In fact it was Sagna who was the next to be confused by last summer's personnel change. With half time approaching and under pressure from Nani, the Arsenal right-back played in none other than former teammate van Persie who made a beeline for Wojciech Szczesny's goal. Noticing his error with horror, Sagna did well to catch up with RVP inside the box, before promptly scything him down. It was an obvious penalty, and directly caused by one of the worst individual errors I've seen this season.

Frustration. Of course van Persie took the penalty. Of course he scored it. Szczesny did well to stare him down and guessed right with his dive, but it was a perfectly powered and placed shot. RVP did not celebrate.

The second half was a stalemate, with chances for both sides resulting in good saves, including a great one from Szczesny's face. The game was scrappy at times, with both sides, possibly still unsure which side RVP was playing for, mis-hitting some of their passes. Three Arsenal and five United players were booked by referee Phil Dowd who marshalled the game well overall. It was encouraging to see Arsenal not allowing themselves to be outmuscled, chasing every player down and making some powerful tackles. There was even a throwback to the Arsenal-United games of the noughties, with Jonny Evans squaring up (or down) to Walcott at one point.

It was a fairly even affair and frustrating that neither side really seemed that determined to find a winner. A draw was a fair result and not a bad one for Arsenal, but I can't help thinking if one of our players had taken the game by the scruff of the neck we could have dug out a victory. Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla all went awol at times, and Sagna looked worryingly out of touch. Perhaps starting Jenkinson in the next game would make him aware of the competition.

Focus remains on qualifying for Europe next season, Chelsea have a tough run-in but fourth place is still looking more likely than third and I know I'm not alone in prioritising finishing above Spurs. A point should not be complained about but the team needs to find some ideas on how to beat the biggest teams if they want to be in contention with them next season.

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