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All Things Footie | Monday, October 25 | Jordan

Balance of power

Nearly six years ago, I remember Marc Overmars bursting clear of the United defence to score the winning goal at Old Trafford on the way to Arsenal’s first league and cup double in 30 years. I remember the game so vividly because United had such a stranglehold on the domestic game at that point in history that three points at their place felt more like ten. United were the best team in the country, they were unbeatable (well, figuratively speaking). It’s a measure of how things have changed in the short half a decade or so since then that three points at home to Arsenal feels like winning the cup final. For United fans. Yesterday I saw fans who didn’t look this happy when their team won the European Cup. There’s no doubt that Arsenal are streaks ahead in the footballing stakes, the not insignificant record of 49 games unbeaten is testimnony to that, but the lingering inferiority complex that fans of the London club have felt over the last five or six years has finally evaporated.

It’s going to be very difficult to write the rest of this article without resorting to petty name calling, bilious rants or general petty-mindedness; can I just assure everyone that it is merely frustration, not bitterness that fuels everything I say from hereon in. I’m not going to try and be clever, I shan’t dress things up, I’m going to be as straight faced as I can.

Firstly there’s the ref. Now, Graham Poll—allegedly our country’s leading match official—was orignially scheduled to referee this much-hyped, high-stakes, high perssure game. I don’t like Poll, neither does Arsène Wenger, neither does Alex Ferguson, but that shouldn’t matter a jot, it’s got nothing to do with any of us. Despite this decision, made some time ago, the match official was changed mid-week to Mike Riley. Mr Riley has seen fit to award a penalty to Manchester United on every one of his previous visits to Old Trafford, all eight of them. That could be an understandable statistic if Riley had a penchant for awarding spot-kicks indiscrimitaely, but he doesn’t. In fact, I think he’s only awarded one other penalty in his Premiership career. Every time he visits Old Trafford he awards United a penalty (most of them very debateable too), this is a widely known statistic, so why on earth would anyone chose to appoint him as a match official? It’s asking for trouble, it’s once again drawing attention to the referee rather than the players and the game, and it’s downright stupid.

Unsurprisingly to everyone, Riley failed to send off Rio Ferdinand for a clear—it really could not have been clearer—foul on Freddie Ljungberg as the Swede broke through the United defence and outpaced the United captain. Even more unsurprisingly, he failed to control Gary and Phil Neville as they continually kicked at José Antonio Reyes, only showing cards after the sixth or seventh cowardly lunge by them. More unsurprisingly still, he failed to censure Ruud van Nistelrooij for an all too typical stud raking, knee-high challenge on Ashley Cole, an offence for which van Nistelrooij will no doubt escape any kind of video panel punishment for some obscure loophole—not being able to view incidents committed by dutchmen on the fourth Sunday of the month or something. The most unsurprising of all his errs however was the awarding of a penalty to United after a pitiful dive from the new golden boy of English football (ensuring he’ll escape any kind of criticism). Times have changed, certain teams have gone unbeaten for unprecedented runs of 49 games, but it’s same-old, same-old at Old Trafford.

I hate having to talk about referees like this. It spoils what would otherwise have been a fascinating encounter. As it was, the sense of injustice was just too strong to be able to enjoy anything. Until Riley’s penalty, United and Arsenal were as evenly matched as everyone expected, neither team looked like winning, neither team desereved to, but matches change on moments. Way back in the mists of time, Arsenal were playing Portsmouth and it was a similar story, when much to the annoyance (to put it mildly) Arsenal were awarded a Penalty after Robert Pires went down after minimal contact from a Pompey defender (shame on me for not remembering who). Arsenal won the game courtesy of the subsequent penalty, and the next forty-something games are history. The fact that Mike Riley is a corrupt, match fixing waste of space and disgrace to the game is besides the point, a shitty decision went against Arsenal, who weren’t able on the day to come back on the day. They didn’t deserve to lose, but on a few occasions over the last eighteen months of invincibility they’ve not deserved to win.

As a great philosopher once said, shit happens. Rooney’s penalty wasn’t a foul, but United should have got one later on from Ronaldo (I’m guessing Riley thought two pens would have been taking the piss, or spoiling the aesthetics of his penalties-per-visit average). The now traditional push and shove, kick and stamp tactics of United were nothing new and plenty of teams this season (and last) have stopped Arsenal playing their cut-and-thrust football this way. United did well to get all three points, even if the way they went about it was ugly and a little suspicious. Ferguson’s tactics were sound and the team applied itself well.

The fact remains however, that there is a long way to go before United can claim to have anything over Arsenal in the footballing stakes. Last season’s heated scenes and sense of injustice at Old Trafford spurred Arsenal on to an unbeaten season, and I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the similar sense of injustice the players must feel at yesterday’s result has a similar effect. Anyone who’s seen Arsenal’s last few games may agree with me that the team was beginning to look a little complacent—a little lacking in motivation. Now they have something to prove again, it’ll be interesting to see Arsenal’s next few performances to see if they can hang on to their lead above Chelsea at the top of the table. United on the other hand, can look forward to attempting to catch up with Bolton and Everton. As Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph so eloquently put this morning:

“In their delirium today, United’s supporters will not stop to award points for artistic merit. If they do, Arsenal are still miles out in front. It is a measure of their brilliance that they have turned the richest club in the country into an ensemble of guerrillas, scrapping and goading to protect their fading dominance when the Islington canon rumbles into town. Deep into this toxic collision of north and south, Mancunian and cockney, United’s players must have been haunted by a voice from deep within. It was the sound of their souls crying out against Arsenal’s superior poise and composure. Arsenal sweep and stroke the ball these days. United poke and prod. The inner voice told the home XI that Arsenal are the better, and not just the more successful, Premiership side. `More successful’ speaks only of statistics on the page. `Better’ is a more piercing, confidence-sapping word.”

(2) Comment(s) | Permanent link to this article

# Posted by Anonymous Rich at 11:54 AM
That Pires dive (the victim was Dejan Stefanovic) actually earned Arsenal a draw, not a win. If it hadn't happened Arsenal's unbeaten run would never have started.

Although I would have liked my team to win, and I HATE diving, the run was deserved: some of the football Arsenal played was immense and the invincible season was breathtaking to watch.
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