United 1 Arsenal 0 - Verdict
Even as he approaches his landmark day as United's longest serving manager on Sunday and his 69th birthday on New Year's Eve Sir Alex Ferguson has still got plenty of masterstrokes up his sleeve. Who else would have dared to ignore the irresistible and considerable claims of a five-goal striker and leave him on the bench? But the old fox stunned many by omitting Dimitar Berbatov from his XI after his marvellous haul against Blackburn Rovers. And wouldn't you just know it?ˆThe player who arguably profited most by that selection, Ji-sung Park, proved the match winner, putting the Reds back on top of the Premier League. The presence in the VIP seats of 26 of the 33 Chilean miners who survived two months trapped underground was living proof that as tricky and tough as it is to reach the Premier League summit, there are more important things in life. But even that analogy might have been difficult to run past Berbatov when he was informed he would be sitting this one out. From feted in the last Old Trafford league match against Blackburn to left out in the cold against the Gunners. But if the Bulgarian had done his homework maybe he might have realised his place was going to be in jeopardy even if he'd doubled his personal account against Rovers. Since joining the Reds from Tottenham in 2008 Berbatov has only started one match against Arsene Wenger's side.That was just 12 matches into his United career and the Reds lost 2-1 in London. In the five league and European Cup showdowns since Berbatov has been on the bench and United haven't lost against Arsenal, winning four of them. Instead of a two-pronged attack Fergie has always preferred to have the insurance of an extra man in midfield. It won United a Champions League place in Rome in 2009 and six Premier League points last season. On paper, it may have a touch negative, but the actual rewards have been nine goals in those four victories. Perhaps Berbatov could also have had a word with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Old Trafford said its official farewell to the Norwegian legend last night before he leaves England this month to take over as Molde's manager. Back in 1999, after his four-goal substitute feat at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal were the very next league visitors to Old Trafford and Solskjaer didn't feature! Read Stuart Mathieson's player ratings here For every selection loser there is a winner and against the Gunners, when Berbatov is the victim, it is Park who usually gains. And the Korean nearly always manages to justify Fergie's choice. He scored at the Emirates last January in the league and also in the capital in the Champions League semi final second leg. Last night the 29-year-old again came up with the goods to swing the table-topping game in United's favour just before half time. It had been an intriguing and absorbing contest that just lacked the goalmouth action to match some of the intricate passing from both sides. But it wasn't all pretty football as Fergie had warned. Anderson and Nani both discovered what their boss had been talking about when he observed that Wenger's new breed had added aggression to their armoury. For all the pre-match talk of Arsenal's defence being their title Achilles heel they began protecting 19-year-old debutant keeper Wojciech Szczesny admirably. Two testing drives that dipped late at the Pole's feet from Wayne Rooney and a Nani reflex snapshot, however, were the only first-half efforts that got through. Arsenal for their part were having desperate trouble converting some decent possession and fluency into a final ball that might hurt Edwin Van der Sar. It was no great shock, therefore, when it was United who burst the dam. Not only did Park drift smartly into Berbatov territory to meet Nani's cross, but he displayed the dexterity picked up from Chicharito as he twisted his neck to glance his goal beyond Szczesny. The Reds could have put the issue beyond doubt in the 54th minute when Rooney and Anderson created a chance in a space the size of a telephone box. But the Brazilian was unable to lift his shot over the keeper and the young Pole kept him out. Worryingly, Arsenal were gaining the upper hand. Having successfully kept in-form danger man Samir Nasri out of the action in the first period, the French international finally got a foothold in the match. His 56th minute shot was palmed by Van der Sar to Gunners hitman Chamakh and it took a block from Vidic to deny the equaliser. Nani had two excellent chances to increase United's lead but squandered both miserably. Not surprisingly, Wenger was the first to dip into the stellar performers warming both benches and brought on Fabregas and Van Persie. But it was United who wrestled back the initiative and should have gone 2-0 up. Nani's persistence won a penalty when Clichy handballed but Rooney's spot kick run up was that of a man who'd just had an incredible adrenaline rush. The striker got underneath his effort and it ended up high in the Stretford End. Don't talk to the Chilean miners about tension in a football match, but the watching soccer world was put on edge by Rooney's miss as England's top two kept up a relentless and entertaining pace that did the pre-match billing full justice.
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