It seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. It was just before stoppage time in the second half of the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, a match which United had dominated in front of their home fans. Now, however, all that good work was to be undone in a single moment, a moment which came from nowhere to shock United to the core. It was done in slow motion, one which all who were watching could see, but do absolutely nothing to stop. It was the ultimate shock to the system for United fans everywhere.
Before that, United had been defying expectations and giving Arsenal all sorts of problems. United manager Jose Mourinho came into the game with an under-performing team languishing well outside the top four, while Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were playing some of their best football in a long time. One might have expected that Arsenal, full of attacking flair and class, would have taken the game to their opponents, but United did not allow them any space to move in the early stages and soon had a firm foothold in the match.
The Gunners eventually worked into the match, and Alexis Sanchez should have done better when presented with a header on the edge of the six-yard box, but United were still on top as they started to close in. It all began with controversy, when Antonio Valencia went down in the box after an attempt by Nacho Monreal to impede him. Referee Andre Marriner emphatically signalled play-on, leaving Mourinho furious on the touchline and the home fans incredulous.
Frustration: Jose Mourinho protests after Manchester United were denied a penalty.
The incident brought the best out of United, and they set about getting their noses in front before the break. It was Juan Mata who came agonisingly close, getting on the end of a good ball from Paul Pogba, beating Shkodran Mustafi and forcing a fingertip save from goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech was called into action again minutes later, when some skilful build-up by Pogba, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial gave the latter a chance in a strong position. Cech was there, and the ball was tipped over the bar.
United continued to dominate, but they did not look like finding the back of the net despite trying very hard to do so. Then it came. It was Pogba who started it, finding Herrera as he made his way to the by-line to whip in a cross. The cross came to Mata at the top of the box, catching Arsenal out as they moved towards their own goal, and Cech did not stand a chance as the ball was drilled into the bottom corner, well out of his reach.
Heartbreak: Olivier Giroud (left) scores Arsenal’s only goal as everyone else watches on.
It was desperation time for Arsenal as the game continued, but the Gunners could not even get themselves a shot, let alone a goal. United, while sitting back a little further, still looked more dangerous, while Arsenal’s playmakers just looked lost. They were moving forward, but they seemed to have no bite when it came down to it.
Then they levelled. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the ball, with Marcus Rashford looking to ensure he got no further. He failed, as Oxlade-Chamberlain used his pace to get past and find space for a cross, which looped devilishly towards the back post, as Olivier Giroud closed in. Phil Jones fell over in a desperate attempt to get the ball, and the big Frenchman had no-one to compete with as he rose above all others to ram it home. It was all done.
In the aftermath, refereeing decisions will be examined and re-examined, as with moments where it could have been so different. In the end, however, it is another missed opportunity for United, who can hardly afford any more slip-ups if this campaign is to carry any success, both at home and abroad.
Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Mata 68)
Arsenal 1 (Giroud 89)
Referee: Andre Marriner
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian (Blind 64); Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Schneiderlin 85), Pogba, Martial (Rooney 63); Rashford.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Jenkinson (Oxlade-Chamberlain 84), Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny (Giroud 73), Coquelin (Xhaka 80); Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey; Sanchez.
1. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was in top form, working his way into pockets of space and causing massive problems for Arsenal with his awareness and skill. He scored United’s only goal after finding space in the box, and generally put in a very strong performance.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was a solid midfield presence throughout, but it was his ability to get forward which caused big problems for Arsenal. His pace and skill allowed him to combine well with Pogba and others, and he provided the assist for Mata’s goal with a tricky ball to the top of the box.
3. Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Cech was in top form in Arsenal’s goal, making a number of key saves and getting into good positions to continually thwart United. His save to deny Mata late in the first half was particularly solid, and he was the main reason that Arsenal were able to escape with a draw away from home.
4. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in excellent form playing in attacking midfield, using his incredible skill on the ball to set up his teammates and unlock Arsenal’s defence. His control was impeccable, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net when he ventured into the box.
5. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
Valencia allowed United to function with the fluency they had, pushing forward from right back to give Mata freedom to roam wherever he saw fit. Valencia was one of the best in his own right as well, using his pace to open up holes in the defence when he pushed up field.