It was once the clash of the titans, two footballing supertankers. Great minds battling against each other. A high-octane clash, never more graphically captured than when Martin Keown screamed his delight at Ruud van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman had missed a late penalty. Schadenfreude at its best, or a scene from Planet of the Apes. You choose.
Manchester United v Arsenal used to mean something. Fixtures between the two clubs were once season-defining – for both clubs and for the broader English football. Not any more, although Arsenal’s win has rescued their season and left United with the sole aim of chasing a Champions League place with a team people are rapidly losing faith in. There was no surprise at United losing, going down to a strike from a player who couldn’t buy a goal when he lined-up for the Reds. With Bradford or Reading waiting for Arsene Wenger’s side, Arsenal seem destined to successfully maintain their grip on the trophy they won last May. It’s the ideal draw for the Gunners. Where have we heard that before?
It’s a fractious United that will end the season potless for the second successive year – the first time that’s happened since 1989 when Fergie was still trying to shape his team and ideology. United’s defence is in dire need of shoring up, despite the acquisition of Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw. Time must be running out for both Antonio Valencia and Chris Smalling, who were both exposed against Arsenal. The midfield is also surprisingly fragile at times. Daley Blind is a player I like, but against Arsenal, he was found wanting, although a porous defence was too often in need of his help and reduced his effectiveness. Angel Di Maria may be on his way from Old Trafford if you believe some of the red-tops. He started his United career well, but he doesn’t look anywhere near the player we saw in the summer and at Real Madrid. The Daily Telegraph broke a story suggesting that Louis van Gaal would unload the Argentine to Paris St. Germain if he could lure Gareth Bale to Manchester. While the first part of that claim may have some substance, why would Bale move from the Bernabeu? At the moment, it’s thank heavens for Wayne Rooney. Inevitably, United will spend big in the summer. But they wrote cheques for close to £ 150m in the last close season and so far, have had little payback. Patience is not a virtue that exists in abundance in 21st century football.
What’s very indicative of United’s fall from grace is that eyebrows are no longer raised when they lose. Their five defeats this season have mostly been against clubs they would have routinely beaten [healthily] in Sir Alex Ferguson’s day: Swansea (away 1-3, home 1-2); Southampton (home 0-1); and Leicester City (away 3-5). And then there’s a derby defeat at City, no disgrace but a further reminder of the power shift in Manc football. They struggled through in the FA Cup against lesser opposition, but against the top six, they have only lost once in five games.
Arsenal’s season has been characterised by one step forward, another one and a half back. It really has been “Amity Island Syndrome” for Emirates regulars. In other words, when they think it’s safe to go into the water of expectation, a huge bloodthirsty shark comes along – the latest one being the Monaco debacle. Arsenal fans have witnessed this in defeats against Swansea, Stoke and Southampton, in home draws with Hull and Anderlecht and in the nonchalant way they were dealt with at Chelsea. Conversely, they are capable of brilliant bursts such as those seen at Manchester City, in Turkey and at Old Trafford. If Arsenal remain focused, they should have enough to win the FA Cup for the second successive season, even if they face born-again and again Liverpool in the final. They will surely have too much for Aston Villa, although Christian Benteke can cause them to squirm uncomfortably in their very comfortable Emirates seats.
The more furrowed brows will certainly be at Old Trafford in the remaining weeks of the season, and I don’t mean in the dugout, either. Over the next couple of months it may be easier than it has been for a while to get tickets for Salford’s finest stadium.