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Unread 10-11-2008, 01:11 AM
fred tissue
Default Premier League: Arsenal 2-1 Manchester United

Arsenal played angelic football and found some hope that they will receive their reward for it long before they get to heaven. Arsène Wenger's side must already feel soothed to be above Manchester United in the table, even if Sir Alex Ferguson's team has a game in hand. The greatest boon of all, however, came to onlookers across the world who were reminded that this sport, in its modern form, can cause excitement and awe in equal measure.

Seldom has nostalgia for the football of bygone decades looked more deluded. Athleticism and technique were at the same uncanny pitch on Saturday. The energy served the game instead of undermining it. This spectacle was always likely to be too pure for the losers' taste, with Ferguson and his backroom staff rueful about the unchecked nature of the action. United did acquit themselves fairly well and could have shared the points, but Arsenal deserved to hog the glory.

Wenger was a touch too modest in suggesting that it was only the quality of the finishing that had determined the outcome. While United's work in front of the target had been vague before the substitute Rafael da Silva scored with a confident volley in the 90th minute, Ferguson's line-up was deficient in several respects.

The 18-year-old Brazilian had come on for Gary Neville, 33, who could not cope with the pace of the contest as he deputised for the injured Wes Brown. That was wholly understandable in a veteran who features infrequently, but the verve of Arsenal made others look vulnerable as well. The centre-half pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, for instance, were never in command.

It was a great achievement for Wenger's side to daunt them, particularly when Nicklas Bendtner was the sole first-team striker available. The Dane suffered from terrible finishing at the start of the afternoon, but he never allowed United the sort of control at the back that would have been a basis to pin down Arsenal.

Wenger may have been circumspect in victory because he knows all too well that matches of this character are not the problem. Arsenal have completed eight home games undefeated in all competitions against United, Chelsea and Liverpool since the 2006 move to the Emirates. It says everything about the spellbindingly unorthodox nature of Wenger's philosophy that his team may have found it a relief to be facing the reigning Premier League champions.

In a contest between sophisticates Arsenal will always have high hopes. Indeed, their fluidity meant that the absence of Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie from the attack was not such a great handicap. All that was required to galvanise them was the faintest trace of good fortune.

With 22 minutes gone, Cesc Fábregas's free-kick was half-cleared by Dimitar Berbatov to Samir Nasri and, for the first of the midfielder's two goals, the drive took a small deflection off Neville to beat Edwin van der Sar. When Arsenal put the match out of United's reach, though, it was with a goal that was beyond the visitors' scope.

Fábregas, after 48 minutes, could have sent the ball into the path of Theo Walcott, who was making a run towards the inside-left area, but instead played a less obvious pass to Nasri. The Frenchman's firm finish was irresistible. United's attackers were surely envious since this was another of those occasions when Ferguson's teams bumble in front of the target.

United's attacking statistics are imposing, but there is an intermittent wastefulness. They were nearer a 1-0 defeat to Celtic than they ought to have been in the eventual draw last week and opening the Champions League campaign at Old Trafford with a goalless match against Villarreal was disconcerting. The margin of some wins, too, has been unduly lenient.

There was an initial verve from the visitors and it was lethal passing that set up Wayne Rooney, but his attempt at converting the opening was laughably off-target. At 23, he can still suffer from the adolescent trait of allowing a blunder to affect everything he does thereafter. Rooney willed himself into a state of frustration before being taken off.

Elsewhere, it was one of those days when the minimalism of Berbatov's style left him looking peripheral. Cristiano Ronaldo, for his part, ought to have trimmed the 2-0 deficit after 49 minutes but misconnected with Park Ji-sung's cross and sent it beyond the post. Ferguson must have been hankering after players with a little less panache and a bit more opportunism. All the same, no one would be all that happy, in practice, to gain a poacher if it meant discarding Rooney, Berbatov or Ronaldo.

The obstacles were far from existing solely in United minds. Until the injury in a challenge with Michael Carrick that forced his eventual substitution, Manuel Almunia was sound in goal. He had the reassurance of seeing William Gallas directly in front of him. The Frenchman, fit again after missing a couple of matches, was at his most reliable and it was Gallas who seemed to guarantee the coherence of the defence when six minutes of injury time preyed on the nerves.

While it was impossible to tell just what significance the victory held there is no doubt whatsoever that this Arsenal line-up, with its bewitching football here, is the legitimate heir to Wenger's compelling teams of the past.

Man of the match Samir Nasri

Arsène Wenger's belief that the midfielder should attack more than he did at Marseille was vindicated as the summer signing took his total to five goals

Best moment The confident finish from Cesc Fábregas's pass for his second goal

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