Slick Manchester United brushed aside Arsenal at the Emirates, handing the home side a lesson in counter-attacking football that Arsène Wenger will not soon forget. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-Sung and a Nani-inspired own goal were enough to take the spoils as United closed to within a point of leaders Chelsea.
In the build-up Sir Alex Ferguson had spoken of United’s “biggest game” this season and his side put on a stellar performance at the Emirates for the second visit in succession. There may be no more Cristiano Ronaldo in the visiting side but the Portuguese’s compatriot Nani proved tormentor-in-chief today. The much-maligned winger, whom many predicted would leave the club this winter, turned in a man-of-the-match performance to repay the manager’s faith.
United, as is now customary, lined up with Rooney as a lone front man, ably supported by the aforementioned Nani and Park. If Rooney and Nani were the stars of the show, then Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher provided a superb platform on which to build. Once again the Scot overshadowed the much celebrated Cesc Fabregas in the centre of the park. So much for Wenger’s “anti-football” jibe.
Ferguson’s men were bright from the start, dominating early passages of play as they had in last April’s Champions League semi-final. And while Wenger’s side, typically, was neat in possession to the final third there was little in the way of threat to Edwin van der Sar’s goal.
It was fitting that Nani, at the centre of United’s best attacking moments in the first half, provided the opening goal for the visitors on the half hour. The winger’s sublime flick beat two Arsenal defenders before the Portuguese international ghosted past a third and clipped to the back post. Manuel Alumuni, back-peddling, could only palm the ball into his own net.
A second, on the counter attack, followed less than five minutes later as United swept the length of the pitch to score. Rooney and Nani recalled the visitor’s third in last season’s semi-final by exchanging passes before the former-Evertonian fired gloriously home.
Wenger’s half-time comments had little effect with the home side reduced to long-range pot shots and Ferguson’s side dominating midfield.
In any case the match was over as any kind of meaningful contest as the visitors one again demonstrated the brand of counter-attacking football that has been a hall mark of Ferguson’s sides. This time Park was the beneficiary, just five minutes into the second period, running half the length of the pitch before coolly slotting home.
Thomas Vermaelen’s late consolation did little more than spoil van der Sar’s clean sheet, with even Wenger bereft of excuses for a sound beating.
Unsurprisingly Ferguson delighted in victory after a mid-winter wobble that saw defeats to Fulham, Aston Villa, Leeds United and Manchester City.
“It was a great performance, there’s no doubt about that. I’m really pleased with that,” he told Sky Sports.
“At this time of year you need to really kick on and I think Wednesday’s result and performance has galvanised us again.
“I think you saw that in the players in the way they went into this game, they were sharp and they were good in their passing and they made a lot of chances too.”
United was so dominant in the centre of the pitch it is not unfair to recall Patrice Evra’s cutting “men-against-boys” refrain from last season’s semi-final. It set up a platform for the devastating talents further forward.
“I think that counter-attacking has always been a part of our game anyway, particularly away from home, and we capitalised on a lot of these opportunities today,” Ferguson said.
“Arsenal play a lot of good football and get to the edge of your box regularly and then if you can win the ball and counter-attack quickly you can get a lot of good chances against them.”
Rightly Ferguson saved special praise for Nani, who after months in the wilderness has now put in a run of fine performances on the right side of midfield. With Antonio Valencia so bright in the opening half of the season, Ferguson now has two top class options on the right of his team.
Indeed, so frustrating has Nani been that many supporters had lost faith in the player who cost more than £15 million from Sporting Lisbon in 2008.
“It’s amazing, when you talk to the players they all want him to play, they all think he’s fantastic and now we get consistency and maturity out of him I think we’ve got a really good player,” Ferguson said of Nani.
“The boy has come back. He had an injury and he’s been freshened up and his last three games have been first class and today was his best.
“Maturity is one thing as he’s 23 now, he’s a very shy boy there’s no question about that. It’s a question of getting stronger and better to deal with playing for us every week. And today is an example of that maturity.”
An unlikely hero in a high quality team performance from United, who face Portsmouth at Old Trafford next weekend. Arsenal meet Chelsea at Stamford Brige, with Ferguson hoping that Wenger’s side “batter” their cross-town rivals.