First things first. I thought we played really well yesterday.
That doesn’t change anything I know but if the title was to be lost at least we gave it a good go. I was surprised how open the game was in the first half, chances at both ends. Our best falling to Adebayor who shot straight at Van der Sar but we had other half chances and caused United lots of problems.
Their best chances came through defensive mistakes by Alex Song, a surprising selection at centre-half in such a big game. The first he went to ground in the penalty area allowing Ronaldo to cut back to Rooney but Lehmann, in for the injured Almunia, made a decent save. The second came when Song allowed a harmless looking ball to bounce past him, Rooney raced through and his shot clipped Lehmann’s heel and dribbled wide. To be fair to Song he did better in the second half though and it was a big game for the young lad to be thrown into.
We took the lead early in the second period, Robin van Persie’s cross from the left was headed/handed in by Emmanuel Adebayor. When Andy Gray talked about us getting a big slice of luck I winced. I just knew it was going to come back and bite us in the arse. And so it was. William Gallas’s ridiculous handball in the box saw United awarded a penalty and Ronaldo scored it first time, was made take it again, and scored it again. The irony of the captain, the man who was so quick to bemoan our lack of experience on Tuesday, giving away a penalty as soft as that just minutes after we’d scored was not lost on me. It just proves that even ‘the best’ players make mistakes and all of our centre-halves have been guilty of them season. All of them.
They made it 2-1 with about 20 minutes to go when I thought they were awarded a very generous free kick outside the box. I think everyone, Lehmann especially, expected Ronaldo to take it but Owen Hargreaves curled home an unstoppable goal. Jens didn’t even move. We brought on Bendtner who had two headed chances that maybe he’d think he should have done better with, although for one his shirt was being pulled all over the place, but there was no way back. Our title challenge is over for this season, United put themselves in pole position.
Afterwards the manager conceded it was all over , saying:
Yes we are out. We played with quality and spirit, and I’m very proud of our performance. What can you do? We had plenty of chances and we were really unlucky not to win.
If you read more of Arsene (or watch the video ) he sounds utterly fed up with the refereeing decisions that have gone against us. I thought the Hargreaves goal came from a free kick where the ref bought the dive of the United player. It wasn’t a free kick, can’t agree with the boss about the penalty though. Stone wall for me. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the implication that there’s some kind of refereeing conspiracy against us. I don’t think there is, we’ve just had a lot of bad luck and a lot of decisions go against us. I can understand Arsene’s frustration but really referees didn’t cost us the title, we cost us the title.
In all competitions since the start of February we have just 4 wins from 15 games and just 8 points from 24 in the league. Some crap decisions played their part but they’re not solely to blame. It’s as poor a run of form as I can ever remember under Arsene.
To my mind there was no way we deserved to lose that game yesterday, which kind of sums up our season. Perhaps a draw would have been a fair result because let’s not forget United had some chances too. But to lose again in a big game really does knock the stuffing out of you as a fan. Some might say we had another slice of bad luck today but I don’t see it. We had a bit of luck, if you can call it that, with our goal. We might even have been 2-0 up when Ferdinand nearly scored an own goal but the penalty is really bugging me. It was just so, so stupid and the sight of Gallas walking up the pitch blowing bubbles with his chewing gum really pissed me off. Blowing bubbles in the middle of a football match?! Maybe it’s just me.
More general observations – I thought the selection of Song was unusual, especially in a game we had to win. As I said above he did well enough but got lucky a couple of times in the first half. I think the main thing that springs to mind is our lack of finishing and the fact we play with so many players out of position. Kolo is a centre-half but played at right back, Eboue (hopeless again and up to his old pretending to be injured antics) a right back at right midfield, van Persie a striker at left midfield. I know we’re short of options but you seriously lessen players’ effectiveness when you play them out of position.
But I don’t want to dwell on negatives. I thought there were great performances yesterday from Clichy, Gilberto and Hleb. You can say what you want about Adebayor but he scores goals in big games. I know he might have done better with a couple of chances, one in particular, but often when he misses an easy chance like that he makes up for it later. We saw it at Liverpool on Tuesday, we saw it again yesterday. He has a strong character and he’s about the last person on our team that should be getting any grief. When you read a supposedly respected Arsenal commentator referring to him as a ‘clown’ then you have to wonder why anyone pays attention to what that person has to say. Hardly professorial.
It’s upsetting though, isn’t it? The faint hope we had of the title is now gone. A season that promised so much will now deliver nothing. Nothing tangible anyway. Silverware would have been lovely, but once again the trophy cabinet will go bare. Arsene believes the team is ‘good enough’. I don’t quite agree with him but at the same time I don’t think we’re too far away. I don’t dispute the fact that the squad needs some additions to it but I don’t have gumption to start thinking about that now.
As I’ve been saying for a while I think a reasoned analysis of the squad is perfectly fair but it needs to happen at the end of the season.
We still have four games left to play, Reading (h), Derby (a), Everton (h), Sunderland (a). Those games are worth 12 points. I don’t think 12 points is an unreasonable target for those games which would give us an end of season total of 83 which would be an improvement of 15 over last. That’s not inconsiderable and to put it in perspective we won the league in 97-98 with a total of 78 points. It shows you how high the bar has been raised in the last 10 years.
So let’s concentrate on the games we have ahead of us, then we can start to think about where we go from here and how we do it.
Update : Reaction from the travelling Arsenal fans at Old Trafford after the final whistle . Spine tingling, awesome stuff folks.