......and the Reds go marching on, on, on!
It took a moment for us to realise that a goal had been given in the dying throes of Saturday's game. From our position in the stands, we assumed Howard Webb was about to call time in the last chance saloon, once the ball had stopped ping-ponging around Utd's penalty area and that we Gooners would be trudging out of the stadium seconds later, crestfallen at having ceded such a big psychological advantage to our principal Premiership rivals.
Once the initial euphoria had subsided somewhat, I found myself contemplating the frantic activity in the press box, as all those journos were forced to bash out the polar opposite match report, from the one they'd been preparing to file a few moments prior, perhaps crediting the Arsenal as worthy title contenders, instead of writing us off as lightweight impostors.
In truth, no matter how over-hyped Saturday's clash of the Premiership titans to maximise the theatre for the billions watching around the planet, no prizes are handed out in November. Yet while you may not be able to win a league title before all the leaves have fallen off the trees, you can definitely lose one (as, sadly, we've demonstrated all too ably these past couple of seasons), and I believe this was in the back of the minds of both managers in the tactical deployment of their respective troops.
Perhaps Wenger wouldn't have opted to play 4-5-1 if Van Persie was fit, only he knows. Yet even if this was the optimum use of the players available to him on the day, if I'm honest, with the Arsenal's star in its ascendancy, I was more than a little disappointed to be lining up at home against Man U, with a lone striker. Adebayor might have already bagged a handful of goals (before his current seven game barren streak) and has contributed to the team effort with his Trojan work rate, but I think most watchers would agree that when it has come to the crunch, in and around the penalty area, to date Ade has struggled to find his touch.
So it was that whilst we dominated possession in the centre of the park for long periods, the most common complaint on Saturday was that far too frequently when we advanced forward, there was no one in the box to be able to inflict any real damage. Whereas the more incisive approach play of Rooney, Tevez and co. meant that although they saw less of the ball, they looked far more likely to threaten our goal with it, while we patiently tried to pass it through the eye of a needle.
Nevertheless there was some suggestion that Utd were guilty of showing us too much respect and I believe the recent progress of this Arsenal side was reflected in Fergie's focus on containing us on the counter, with his midfield duo of Anderson and Hargreaves both sitting deep for much of the match and concentrating almost exclusively on their defensive duties.
I've been impressed with Anderson ever since seeing him stand out whilst playing for Porto last season. Despite his distinctive locks, with my premature Alzheimers, I'd forgotten this was the same player, when casting an appraising eye over the new additions to Utd's squad, in a televised pre-season game against Glentoran, where the Brazilian youngster's ability shone like a beacon.
The cheating little sod hardly went about winning friends and influencing people in his first appearance at our place, when demonstrating absolutely no shame, in not even feigning a bit of a limp, but jumping to his feet just moments after he'd managed to get Fabregas booked with an outrageously melodramatic floorshow, as though he'd been felled by a bullet. Yet in spite of a somewhat more restrained performance on the ball, Anderson still managed to impress and I wonder if he might've been more influential if not fettered by Fergie's instructions.
Meanwhile I'm not sure there are too many Gooners who'd agree (just yet!) with the latest contention that Alex Hleb is the best player in the Premiership. For my money, too much of Alex's best work still amounts to nought and he lacks sufficient pace to be able to support a lone-striker. However Hleb's poise and confidence increases apace with each passing game, to the point where he now has this matador like quality which makes me want to shout 'olé' each time he drops a shoulder and leaves a defender for dead. There was a period at the start of Saturday's game where Utd were having such difficulty relieving Alex of possession that it appeared as if our guests were going to need their own ball if they were to play a part in this encounter.
It's not only Hleb who has benefited from our new-found fearlessness. Its awe inspiring watching the incredibly energetic Gael Clichy take on all comers down the left flank, late in the game and on the rare occasion space opens up in front of Kolo Touré, he appears positively unstoppable when he storms forward. While with his preference for the no. 10 shirt, you just know that Willie Gallas has never really accepted the limitations of his centre-back role, when just like every other child at heart footballer he continues to covet heroic goal-scoring ambitions. Willie's wishes were fulfilled at the weekend, where it was 'Gallas of the Gunners' rather than 'Roy of the Rovers' who saved the day for the Arsenal.
I'd just been thinking how quiet Ronaldo had been when he popped up in the penalty area to tap home what looked like being the winning goal. Having stunned us Gooners into silence and given those pesky premature evacuators their cue to miss the rush and take their habitual early leave, the abiding mood on the terraces was that the game was well and truly up.
However if there were few tangible clues as to which of the two teams is better equipped for a title challenge, the thrilling conclusion to Saturday's compelling contest did prove to be a reaffirmation of our side's never say die spirit. Despite the most rousing atmosphere to date, Rooney's goal just before the halftime left me reflecting during the break on the potential disadvantages of our new home and the possibility that we're more susceptible to conceding goals in the closing stages of both halves.
Apparently Sam Allardyce has commented on the fact that the Arsenal are the fittest team in the league, but instead of making the most of this advantage by going for our opponents throats when they're beginning to flag, I get the distinct sense that we might occasionally be guilty of switching off somewhat, merely winding down the clock, waiting for the whistle. The players on the pitch must be aware of all the movement in the stands, as all those who are more interested in the beer, their bellies, or beating the rush home, head for the exits. As the atmosphere and all the intensity of the game appears to evaporate with the activity on the terraces, obviously there will be opponents who remain sufficiently focused to make the most of this shortcoming as Man U did when opening their account on Saturday.
Mercifully the Gunners went and proved my theory wrong with William Gallas' last gasp equaliser. I might've been still screaming as loud as ever, urging them on to the last as always, but in my head, like the majority around me (not to mention all those who were already on their way home including many who must've missed the goal – poetic justice if you ask me!), I was already contemplating how I was going to cope with my workmates merriment over our misfortune.
Of the 60,000 present, it was perhaps only some of the eleven in red & white on the pitch who maintained sufficient belief and refused to give up hope and this bodes very well for the massive challenge ahead. Other than this, some might draw conclusions about the comparative strengths of the two sides' keepers, with Almunia responsible for a couple of obvious rickets and the possibility that Utd appear a little more solid in defence. Yet with the talent at Wenger's disposal, why should we be "bovvered", when the occasional error at the back will only increase the prospect of our footballing pleasures. It was in this vein that I tried to console my neighbour at half-time on Saturday, by suggesting that at least going a goal behind meant that we were guaranteed a great second-half.
The only other obvious opinion one can draw from Saturday's encounter, is that if there was any danger of peace breaking out between the two managers whilst they were both trying to knock Mourinho off his perch, the Chelsea manager's departure has resulted in a return to business as usual and the outbreak of the sort of hostilities that are bound to keep us all engrossed in the coming months ahead.
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