UEFA Champions League Semi Final, First Leg
Manchester United 1 – 0 Arsenal
1 – 0 O’Shea (17)
Before the match Arsene would have told the players that they knew what to expect. United would come flying out of the blocks, storm the battlements but if Arsenal kept it tight, frustration would mount. Crucially, do not let them score in the opening twenty minutes.
The blank scoresheet in the opening spell nearly worked yet very nearly turned into one of the periodic drubbings that we receive at Old Trafford. Little argument with United winning, they wanted the win more and balanced the intensity of the Premier League with their European game far better than Arsenal.
Wenger said after the match:
They can have regrets because they did not score a second goal. The return leg will be a good opportunity to show our character and mental strength. I am confident that you will see our strength of character. It will be our biggest win over United because there is a final at stake.
No surprise that Wenger looked the happier of the two managers. He knows that Arsenal ‘got away with it’. The line-up was influenced by injury, the performance not untypical of Arsenal in the knockout phases of European competition. Cautious, looking to retain possession but too often, passes were across the pitch, the directness that is successful in other competitions is more controlled. Contrast that with the home side whose midfielders sought to attack with direct runs, creating chance after chance. Squandering chance after chance as well.
As an Arsenal custodian, frequent criticism of Manuel Almunia has been that he never wins games. He may have done so last night with the tie, producing a Man of the Match performance to keep the score to just one. It is a measure of his performance that the derision over his nationality options this summer has abated and an England World Cup call-up is not dismissed. Perhaps that nice Mr Capello could do just that, the puce and purple shades on Blatter and Platini’s faces would be worth seeing.
Inside of two minutes, the Spaniard had been called into action, clawing away Rooney’s header that looked to be drifting inside of the post. Not much respite was gained before he blocked Carlos Tevez’s shot and promptly sprang to his feet to form a big enough target to stop the rebound. The resultant corner brought the night’s only goal and a return to the calamitous defending that marred much of the autumnal months.
In the first instance, nothing seemed wrong with the marking. By the time that Carrick’s cross was deflected the area by Mikael Silvestre’s boot, there was none with Toure and Co abandoning their duties to leave three United players unmarked. O’Shea’s shot had the ferocity to beat Almunia, despite the ‘keeper getting a hand to it. The goal was little more than United deserved.
Through a pressing game, they forced Arsenal into long, fruitless balls to Adebayor. When the passing game of the visitors did get together, the two banks of four that they faced held firm, United pressing Arsenal into cul-de-sacs and dead end’s. Walcott was well-marshalled by Evra yet when he did beat the full back, he found another defender blocking his crosses and only Adebayor in the area, covered by five United players. Only once did United become undone by the passing game, Fabregas’ shot from outside of the area comfortably saved by van der Sar.
Before the half-time interval, the ego had landed and been deflated. Ronaldo denied twice by Almunia, one from a header that has found the net so often, the second from a shot taken on the edge of the area. Tevez was once more denied as the legacy of Bob Wilson survived, Almunia diving at the Argentinean’s feet, receiving studs around the throat for his troubles.
The second half brought more Arsenal possession but little more threat. Ronaldo hit the bar, Giggs had his landmark appearance rightly ruined by the Assistant Referee’s flag. Bendtner could, perhaps should, have done better late on with a header under pressure, van der Sar nowhere near the ball as a melee of players blocked his path.
The problem was that United stopped Arsenal from playing which left a number of players with performances which were below par. Nasri out-thought and out-passed the Middlesbrough midfield with ease at the weekend. He could not do so last night against far better players than he encountered in the previous match. With Cesc further forward, it meant that the creative edge was lacking. Walcott was subdued and ineffective against Evra, starving Adebayor of supply and support.
At the back, the whole line was stretched to breaking point frequently in the first half. Diaby was poor in possession and gave Gibbs scant support against the United right hand side of attack, the youngster improving as the game progressed. Similarly, Sagna took the best part of an hour to get on top of Rooney on the left of the United attack.
Of the players who took the field, only Song, Almunia and Toure – the goal aside – performed to anywhere near the levels that we know they are capable. They know it as well. The rest drifted between mediocrity and poor. Credit to United is due for their part in forcing those performances but I expect more from an Arsenal team in the semi final of the Champions League.
The positive for Arsenal is that there is one goal to retrieve. Against that, during Wenger’s reign Arsenal has never overturned a first leg deficit in a two-legged tie in any European or domestic competition. The glass is either half full or half empty; you decide which cap fits best.