Monday, August 31, 2009

United Finds Unlikely Victory

This weekend's premier EPL matchup didn't lack for drama, but it did lack a just result. Arsenal played better football and created more chances, but a penalty and an own goal saw United to a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.

Arsenal's goal came on a blistering strike from Andrei Arshavin. Impressive though it was, United keeper Ben Foster should have done better. That's par for the course for Foster, who simply doesn't play with world-class consistency the way the injured Edwin van der Sar does, though Foster does have flashes of brilliance. Arshavin's goal came just after there were questions of a penalty after Darren Fletcher's totally reckless challenge on the Russian in the box. Fletcher may have nicked the ball with his knee, which might have been the saving grace in the referee's mind. Earlier in the half Van Persie had a fantastic chance deflected away by Evra, and Arshavin had sent another shot just wide. Arsenal's lead was well-earned, and they easily could have added another goal.

The second half was more of the same in the opening moments, with Arshavin beautifully setting up Van Persie. This time Foster kept United in match with a fantastic back leg kick save that was purely instinctual. His counterpart Manuel Almunia managed to do the opposite a few minutes later when he rashly brought down Wayne Rooney after Rooney sent the ball by. Wenger later described the penalty as "Old Traffordish", and it does appear that Rooney anticipated the contact a bit. That said, Rooney likely would have gone down regardless, and Almunia's challenge completely missed the ball. That's a penalty whether or not Rooney made the most of it, and comparing it to Eduardo's total fabrication is ridiculous. Matters only got worse after Rooney hammered home the penalty opportunity, when a free kick saw Abou Diaby head the ball into his own net to put Arsenal behind for good. Diaby wasn't truly pressured, so his error was particularly egregious. United had two goals despite creating very little in the game, and were content to sit back with the lead. Having survived Van Persie's free kick coming off the crossbar, United even survived Arsenal picking the ball out of the net, when Gallas was (rightfully) adjudged to be offside and part of the play. To add to the indignity of it all, Wenger was then sent off in the final moments, though he has since received an apology. Little solace for Wenger, no doubt.

Wenger hasn't cooled down since the match, accusing Manchester United of "anti-football" for their persistent fouling. Wenger particularly focused on Fletcher, who committed six fouls while not picking up a booking, not to mention the penalty call that wasn't for tackling Arshavin. Wenger probably has point about Fletcher, though Van Persie also committed six fouls (but saw yellow), and about singling out Eduardo for diving when there are plenty of diving incidents to go around. Hopefully instead of practicing selective enforcement, UEFA will actually attempt to punish diving after the fact in order to discourage the practice. Ironically, the most blatant dive I saw this weekend was...Eboué for Arsenal, who was rightfully booked for his cynicism. Wenger should remove his focus from UEFA and focus on his side. As wonderfully as they've played, they managed to give away three crucial points at Old Trafford through unforced mistakes. Fortunate as United were, finding ways to win games they shouldn't is part of what makes them what they are. The young Gunners could use a little of that fortitude.

Despite the three points, Man U have their own problems. They've really only played one good half, when they scored the five goals against Wigan. Otherwise they've slogged through a match against newly promoted Birmingham, lost to Burnley, and been out-played by Arsenal at home. Their nine points are mostly the result of luck and guile. No one has come close to filling the Cristiano Ronaldo-sized hole in the lineup, with Valencia and Nani showing only inconsistent quality. Even Sir Alex's tactics were odd Saturday, leaving the effective if not spectacular Berbatov on the bench and playing Rooney alone up top. Despite the victory, it was hard to say this was a success, as Rooney wandered alone up front and created very little, Almunia's mistake on the penalty notwithstanding. Nor did this defensive alignment prevent Arsenal from creating their own quality chances. It was almost as if the lineup indicated Ferguson was afraid of Arsenal, something one would never expect from United at home (perhaps barring a visit from Barcelona, or now Real Madrid).

Elsewhere this weekend, Chelsea continues to roll on with an easy 3-0 victory over Burnley. At the moment Chelsea have beaten Hull, Sunderland, Fulham and Burnley, all teams that seem destined for the bottom half of the table. So perhaps one shouldn't be too impressed just yet. But Chelsea have taken a veteran, business-like attitude to their matches that serves them well. Chelsea are probably title favorites for the moment, but there's plenty more to learn about them. In similar fashion, though not quite as impressively, Manchester City continue to roll on thanks to Adebayor's rebirth, his goal the lone tally in a 1-0 victory at Portsmouth. Adebayor claims the City fans have made him a "special player." No doubt Arsenal fans are thrilled. And rounding out the still-perfect sides, Tottenham made it four wins in as many matches with a last minute strike from Aaron Lennon to defeat Birmingham 2-1. But the victory was marred by the injury to midfielder Luka Modric, who has a broken leg and is out at least six weeks. Spurs are already short in midfield depth, so it's hard to imagine their current place atop the table lasting much longer. But after last year's disaster start, it's hard for Spurs to complain.

Liverpool's title chances avoided (another) early disaster when they came back to win 3-2 at Bolton. Both of Bolton's goals were the result of some fairly pathetic defending. Zone marking was again partly to blame, but the real culprit was the willingness of the Liverpool players to stand there ball-watching. A high school coach would have been embarassed by the display. Liverpool did show resiliency, though not before they benefited from the sending off Sean Davis in the 54th minute. Davis grabbed Lucas in the first half, then tripped him from behind in the to earn the second booking. The trip appeared to be unintentional, so the booking was perhaps harsh, but it certainly stopped the threat and Davis never had any prayer of being near the ball. After Glen Johnson scored in the first half, Torres and Gerrard found answers in the second half. Torres was set up by a gorgeous chested ball from Kuyt, while Gerrard's half volley from 15 yards was trademark Stevie G. A day of survival for the Reds, who still haven't found their form.

Aston Villa appear to have found momentum from their shock victory at Anfield, dispatching a struggling Fulham side 2-0. And Everton finally found a result in a 2-1 victory over Wigan, finding three points after earning a 90th minute penalty. It still wasn't exactly impressive for a side with European aspirations. At least Everton will get Fulham after the international break, who look even worse. The two most interesting fixtures two weeks from now will be United traveling to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham, and Manchester City facing their first real test by hosting Arsenal. Attacking football, talented players, teams with something to prove: the City-Arsenal fixture should provide high entertainment.

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