Tuesday 21 November 2017

Welbeck punishes Gunners

United striker makes Wenger pay for wrong call on Oxlade-Chamberlain

LONDON may have the Olympics but Manchester has the Olympians. United yesterday followed City in defeating capital opposition, exploiting a horrendous error of judgment by Arsène Wenger.

This was never going to be another 8-2 but the result must have felt as sweet to United and as sour to Arsenal, whose fans berated their manager for removing the energetic Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the lord of lethargy Andrei Arshavin

As the home fans seethed, as United seized on Arshavin's lack of defensive effort to race through the gears and score the winner, the Emirates was reminded of United's resilience, of their ability to win when not being at their breathtaking best. United boast the DNA of winners. Arsenal do not.

Painfully for Arsenal fans, this was also a reminder of the fallibility of their manager. An outstanding servant to Arsenal, deserving of respect for all his achievements and his commitment to the Beautiful Game, Wenger made a catastrophic decision with the scores at 1-1. Arsenal were in the ascendancy, having recovered from a shocking first half to level through Robin van Persie.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, all pace and purpose, was worrying United, sending hope sweeping through the home terraces. He had been a beacon amid the darkness of the first half, relishing his first Premier League start. He had helped lead the fightback in the second. He seemed the man who could win it for Arsenal.

As the clock showed 74 minutes, Wenger took off Oxlade-Chamberlain, citing fatigue although the teenager seemed full of running. Van Persie looked on in disbelief, mouthing the word "no''.

Yes. He really had done it. Wenger was in Édith Piaf mode, regretting nothing, and attempting to defend the indefensible by saying he had made 50,000 substitutions in 30 years as a manager, which works out at roughly 30 subs a game. No wonder the French economy is in such a mess.

The only numbers that really counted were those on the scoreboard. The mood changed with Oxlade-Chamberlain's departure; the nerves returned, especially when the ball was near Arshavin. Valencia duly ran past him to set up Welbeck's winner.

For Arsenal, this was a chronicle of a death foretold. Arshavin's commitment levels have been questioned countless times this season.

Injuries have hit them hard and hit them hardest at full-back. Wenger fielded centre-halves out wide, Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen, and they were caught out badly by Nani and especially Valencia.

A sliver of controversy arrived before United's opener. Alex Song made the slightest of contact with Rooney, who went down theatrically, pleading for a penalty. Mike Dean waved play on. Overall, Rooney was far more sinned against than sinning. Song led with his arm in challenging Rooney, catching the United striker on the head.

Just before the break it was United's turn to inflict the pain, taking a lead that their greater tempo deserved. Evra began the move down the left, chesting the ball accurately to Nani, who invited the overlapping Ryan Giggs to have a run at Djourou. Valencia, stealing in ahead of the sluggish Vermaelen, headed home Giggs's expert cross.

Wenger acted at the break, replacing Djourou with somebody who can play full-back, Nico Yennaris. As well as tweaking the team, Wenger seemed to have changed the mood.

When Chris Smalling made a rare slip, Tomas Rosicky darted through and teed up Van Persie, whose shot flew wide.

Oxlade-Chamberlain executed another step-over but fired just off-target. Even so deep, United were still dangerous on the counter. When Per Mertesacker misjudged Jonny Evans's powerful clearing header, Welbeck ran through on goal, lifting the ball over Wojciech Szczesny. Mertesacker, showing unexpected speed, raced back to clear.

United counter, after 71 minutes, cost them. Rafael, who had come on for the injured Phil Jones, exchanged passes with Rooney but was effortlessly dispossessed by Laurent Koscielny. Rafael resembled a confused child suddenly robbed of a sweet. He beat the floor in frustration.

As he did, Koscielny calmly played the ball out to Rosicky, who swept it from right to left to Oxlade-Chamberlain. With Rafael out of position, Valencia attempted to cover back but Oxlade-Chamberlain cut inside and found Van Persie. The Dutchman fired low between Evans's legs and past Anders Lindegaard. Van Persie celebrated the goal by lifting his shirt to reveal a vest wishing a "Happy 91st birthday" to his grandfather Wim, who was looking on proudly.

Wim coming on might have brought a more positive reaction than Arshavin. The boos rang out for the Russian. It was all eyes on the bench as Rafael, already booked and in Alex Ferguson's bad books for his expensive run, went off, in a slight huff, for Ji-sung Park.

Valencia slotted in at right-back but never eschewed his attacking duties. With nine minutes remaining, Valencia was released by Paul Scholes and responded with pace and skill. Valencia turned into Barcelona. He ignored Arshavin's version of tracking back, a few steps and a pirouette, and glided into the box. He played a one-two with Park before cutting the ball back to Welbeck, who drilled it in.

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