By Oliver Platt
Facing a side that has not lost a Premier League home game for over five months shortly after your title rivals have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to pull six points clear at the top of the table is, it is fair to say, a test of a football team’s mettle.
It was a test that Manchester United passed. A late goal from Danny Welbeck helped them overcome Arsenal, who last suffered defeat in the league at the Emirates Stadium on 20 August against Liverpool and have conceded just four goals in nine home matches since.
What Manchester United do best is stay in touch. Defeat today would have significantly reduced their title chances, even with just under half of the season still to be played. It is difficult to argue that the advantage at this point is not with Manchester City, following Mario Balotelli’s dramatic winner against Tottenham, but they will not be allowed to stroll to silverware.
There are certainly some similarities to be drawn in the perceived shortcomings of this United team and the one which secured a 19th league title last season. Wayne Rooney, as always, is a hot topic; in 2010-11, his shocking, but short-lived, refusal to sign a new contract generated a media frenzy and seemed to throw United into disarray. Maybe, many admitted, Rooney is right; United are moving backwards.
They cruised to the title, ending the season with a nine-point cushion, and lost out in the Champions League final only to a Barcelona team that ranks among the greatest to ever play the game.
Rooney has certainly not been at his best in recent weeks, but goals are not something Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have found in short supply. Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov filled the void last season and Welbeck and Antonio Valencia, among others, have done the same here, with the Bulgarian striker also helping his team past some of the Premier League’s smaller clubs when called upon in recent weeks.
Whatever the level of Rooney’s performances, the creativity of his teammates will ensure he continues to add to a Premier League goal tally that trails only the totals amassed by Robin van Persie, Demba Ba and Sergio Aguero.
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One criticism which dates back to the previous campaign and beyond is the failure of Ferguson to adequately replace the likes of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in central midfield. United splashed out around £60 million in the 2006 and 2007 summer transfer windows on Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson.
Carrick, while a moderate success, has never made himself an automatic selection in the centre of the park. Hargreaves has now departed following season after season of injury woes, while a knee problem stopped Anderson in his tracks just as he might have been establishing himself in the starting XI.
It was not a problem at the Emirates as, alongside Carrick, Ryan Giggs rolled back the years with a performance full of energy and guile, his exquisite cross allowing Valencia to open the scoring in the first half. Scholes has returned to provide cover and found the net against Bolton Wanderers in his return to Premier League action.
Giggs and Scholes are aged 38 and 37 respectively, and something more will be needed unless Anderson can stay fit and really step up to the mark alongside Darren Fletcher once the Scot has returned from a long-term absence of his own. The problem has been accentuated by the speculation surrounding the future of two of the club’s brightest midfield prospects, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba.
For now, though, play can be channelled through the likes of Valencia and Nani on the wings; the Ecuadorian in particular has been unplayable in recent weeks and turned in another man of the match performance on Sunday. Ashley Young, so devastating upon his arrival at Old Trafford, is set to return to action shortly.
United face a crucial month ahead. Fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool loom on the horizon but after their match away to Tottenham on March 3, only City, of the current top seven sides, wait in their path between then and the end of the season. It is a platform that will enable them to pile the pressure on Roberto Mancini’s team, who lack the title-winning experience of the defending champions.
At the Emirates, United did not blink. The test that will define City’s season is still yet to come.
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