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Manchester United shoot down Arsenal’s title bid in a damaging 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford

PUBLISHED: 16:27 28 February 2016 | UPDATED: 23:31 28 February 2016

Danny Welbeck scores a goal for Arsenal.  (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Danny Welbeck scores a goal for Arsenal. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

2016 The Arsenal Football Club Plc

Manchester United shot down Arsenal’s title hopes in an open match at Old Trafford this afternoon – as they triumphed 3-2 with young tyro Marcus Rashford contributing two goals.

Fans of the Red Devils have bemoaned an absence of attacking flair this season – even if their team attempted to change opinions in an cracking game that sparked into life on the half hour – which asked serious questions of the validity of the Gunners’ title bid.

For Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal who travelled north with high hopes it was a massive blow to their hopes of winning the Premier League for the first time in 12 years – as two defensive lapses in the space of two first half minutes put a huge dent in their prospects.

Despite the continued support from the travelling fans throughout the whole 90 minutes the loss again saw frustration with Wenger and his men as they remain five points behind leaders Leicester in the most open title race for years.

Yet before kick-off the talk among fans outside Old Trafford was of Jose Mourinho arriving in the summer. A trip to see the United We Stand fanzine seller was instructive. He told me: “Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said when Louis van Gaal left Bayern Munich: ‘I’m fed of up seeing so many unhappy football fans at my club.’”

Among the United support there has been considerable disquiet about the failure to attack in many games this season – mitigated by young local lad Rashford hitting two on his professional debut in the Europa League on Thursday – and another two and an assist this afternoon to help defeat the Londoners.

Given his vibrant performance it was incredible to think he was making his first Premier League start for The Red Devils this afternoon, with David De Gea also returning in goal.

It was to be an inspired decision by the under siege van Gaal.

Arsenal made three changes from their predictable if spirited defeat by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona on Tuesday with former United hero Danny Welbeck in for Olivier Giroud – hoping to replicate his performance here last season in the FA Cup 6th round after he netted the winner in a memorable 2-1 win in front of 9,000 away fans.

The teams came out to the strains of Manchester band The Stone Roses ‘This is the One’.

For Arsenal’s title bid it was certainly was.

On a mild late winter’s lunchtime Arsenal kicked off attacking the famed Stretford End – but with 3,000 passionate visitors from London making all the noise in the opening stages.

Given the history between these two sides in this fixture – make no mistake one of England’s biggest games whatever the league position’s of these two heavyweights – it was not surprising the early stages were full of endeavour and fight rather than any end product.

However that soon changed when Mesut Ozil – only three short of overtaking Thierry Henry’s record of 20 assists in a league season – played the ball into the box and into the path of an onrushing Nacho Monreal who saw an alert David de Gea smother his shot on seven minutes.

During the long drive up the mind wandered back to matches past between these two footballing giants.

Of course there were never-to-be-forgotten images of those two warriors Patrick Vieria and Roy Keane during the years when, in Wenger’s words, ‘the whole world stopped to watch’.

And as the M1 morphed into the M6 there were recollections of the matches here at this evocative stadium in the seasons when Arsenal won the league.

Of a heroic Tony Adams putting his head where Angels feared to tread with a diving header which won a crucial point for George Graham’s battlers in the title run-in of April 1989. Of Anders Limpar firing past a despairing Les Sealey from the byline at the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ in October 1990 that saw the Gunners fined two points – which only served to galvanise the club into winning the league six months later.

Of a superlative Mark Overmars tormenting Gary Neville in an emphatic 1-0 win in March 1998 that saw the North Londoners ease to ten league wins on the trot and the glorious double. Of Sylvan Wiltord netting the winner in the 2002 game that saw the banner lifted among joyous travelling support which simply read: ‘Champions section Old Trafford’.

And of course who could ever forget Ruud van Nistlerooy missing a last minute penalty – much to the delight of Martin Keown – that enabled the red and white team from London to become Invincibles during the immortal 2003/04 season.

So, today would be an indication of how seriously we should take Arsenal’s nascent title challenge.

Win and the fight was very much on. Lose and the stuttering would turn from concerning to problematic.

With only one league win here since September 2006 the odds were with the home team. Even if the bookies odds suggested otherwise before the match as they actually made Wenger’s team favourites for once.

We were soon to find out Arsenal’s title credentials were disappointingly weak.

In the opening stages young Rashford tangled with Hector Bellerin and fell just outside the box along Arsenal’s right flank, with the resulting free kick by Memphis gathered safely by Cech on 15 minutes.

The match took on a pragmatic air with little leeway for flair, and so talk moved to the news this morning United were looking to overhaul their set-up with a director of football – and depending on who you talked to – a new manager for next season, sending memories drifting back to another ‘new’ start for the Mancunians in August 1989.

A Michael Knighton had told the world he was purchasing the club for the princely sum of £10million. Excited by the thought of his new toy he attempted to keep the ball in the air with a series of bad keepie-uppies in front of a perplexed Stretford End before kick off on that sunny day. Unfortunately for Knighton he forgot to mention he didn’t have the funding in place, nor a decent footballing technique either, and the deal fell through – even if the unedifying spectacle would long remain in the memory.

Arsenal arrived as champions of England but were demolished 4-1 during heatwave conditions. It was the second summer of love and the Stone Roses were due to play their infamous gig in Blackpool that very same night.

In the event it was a false dawn for United as they again failed to win the league that season, with an Arsenal team that flattered to deceive ultimately finishing fourth – with even the Stone Roses soon to be mired in a stasis.

Was history about to repeat itself this afternoon at another packed Old Trafford?

The first 30 minutes were as much about the two teams sparring with each other in a far less frenzied manner than the Frampton Quigg Super-Bantamweight unification bout which took place in the city the previous evening, which saw the popular Ulsterman ultimately triumph.

But the uninspired start was soon to change in the 29th minute when Rashford angled the ball past Cech’s despairing dive to make it 1-0 to United – after good work wide on the right by Guilllermo Varela – which saw love spread for the young lad across the stadium.

Three minutes later an inspired Jesse Lingard set up Rashford with a free header in the box to make it 2-0.

The promising Rashford – about to be adored by the Old Trafford faithful – aimed a powerful header past the right hand of Cech and into the net – as those who banged the drum for his inclusion today disagreed that scoring in the Premier League for United was the hardest thing in the world.

Yet the truth was the Arsenal defence collectively was ponderous and slow to react on both occasions – a damming indictment on a team which has title pretensions.

Those in the press box and in the away end wondered what the response would be – would the Gunners’ title challenge be seen as Fools Gold or would the remainder of their first half response be a Second Coming?

In the 39th minute we got an answer of sorts after a Mesut Ozil free kick 45 yards out found the head of Salford-born Welbeck in the box to make it 2-1.

The striker still looking to reach full match fitness after nearly a year out netted his second league goal in two games by cleverly dipping his head and angling the ball past de Gea’s outstretched left hand dive.

At 2-1 it was game on again, even if the momentum Arsenal were fighting to regain after two defensive lapses was stalled by referee Craig Pawson’s half time whistle.

The second half started very much in the same vein as the first with lots of honest endeavour but little penetration.

But gradually United imposed their will on the game as Memphis looked to take on an increasingly under pressure Bellerin.

Wenger decided to make a change bringing on Giroud for a quiet Walcott with 28 minutes remaining – who showed as much passion as he did all afternoon with his disgruntled body language upon being subbed.

The change was to little avail as Rashford, finding space in the box in the 63rd minute, played a slide rule pass across the edge of the box inch perfectly to Herrera. The former Bilbao man fired off a shot that took a deflection off Koscielny and past Cech to make it 3-1.

It was nothing more than United deserved.

Still Arsenal were not beaten as Sanchez crossed into the box five minutes later. After a scramble the ball fell to Ozil who, although not connecting properly, ensured the ball found its way past de Gea and into the net to make it 3-2 on 69 minutes.

After a series of niggly challenges Red Devils boss van Gaal raged at the fourth official – before deciding to throw himself to the ground in a manner unbecoming of a Manchester United manager.

His bizarre action may have showed how much passion he has for the role but ultimately it revealed more about himself in a piece of substandard theatre that will see him mocked for as long as fans talk about his tenure. At least number two Ryan Giggs had the decency to look embarrassed.

A rather more edifying spectacle was the heartfelt ovation the ground gave Rashford on being subbed moments later for Adnan Januzaj. They love young attackers at The Theatre of Dreams and the teen forward has immediately proved he could be the one United fans have been waiting for.

As United held on despite Arsenal’s increasingly desperate attacks it was a case of wanting to adore their heroes.

For Arsenal this hugely damaging defeat resurrected more dismal memories of fading title bids.

As the Stone Roses sang memorably; ‘The time has come to shoot you down.’

Which is exactly what United did to Arsenal’s faltering title challenge.

Teams

Manchester United

David De Gea, Marcos Rojo (Tim Fosu-Mensah 55), Memphis, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick (c), Daley Blind, Anton Herrera (James Weir 90), Morgan Schneiderlin, Guilllermo Varela, Jesse Linguard, Marcus Rashford (Adnan Januzaj 79).

Arsenal

Petr Cech, Gabriel, Laurent Koscileny (c), Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott (Olivier Giroud 62), Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, Nacho Monreal, Danny Welbeck (Alex Iwobi 82), Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin (Mohamed Elneny 70).

Ref: Craig Pawson

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