Arsenal 3 Manchester United 2: Is it safe to believe yet? by Joel Mians at the Emirates
It is common knowledge by now that matches at the Emirates this season have been enlivened with an atmosphere of raucousness and frenzy, where fans have cultivated a synergy with a young, dynamic team ready to take on all comers.
Eddie Nketiah’s last-gasp winner on Sunday has arguably added a potent third ingredient to this intoxicating emotional cocktail in North London that could be crucial for the remainder of the season. Belief.
An incredible feat is on the cards at Arsenal, and everything about their 3-2 win against Manchester United was underpinned by the belief they can claim their first Premier League title in nineteen years.
The crackling energy in the crowd before the game. The mettle to recover from 1-0 down against an in-form title rival. And the suffocation of United in the attacking half until eventually gaining a deserved deciding goal in the 90th minute.
The fans believe.
With an icy chill inside the ground piercing every part of uncovered skin, supporters would have been trembling from the freezing weather as much as from sheer anticipation of another epic contest between Arsenal and United, like those from decades past.
Even so, there was a warm red haze that slowly rose from the stands and filled the stadium right before the opening whistle, courtesy of a rousing rendition of the Gunners’ pre-match theme “North London Forever”. It had never been sung louder than it was on Sunday. Then again, the stakes had never been higher.
Although, United have certainly never needed an invitation to spoil an Arsenal party over the years, and Marcus Rashford was happy to re-enact his role as their tormentor-in-chief once again.
A brilliant piece of skill on the seventeenth minute to evade midfielder Thomas Partey, after the Ghanaian’s errant pass, created the space for the Mancunian forward to rifle the ball past Ramsdale from outside the box and give Erik ten Hag’s side an early lead.
Yet, rather than cries of frustration, bellows of encouragement and roars of “COME ON ARSENAL” rung around the stadium. This was the brazen defiance that had seen Arsenal recover from setbacks throughout this season to win all but one of their league matches at home so far. Someone had failed to let United know: If you take the lead as the away side at the Emirates, you better cherish it because you won’t have it for long.
The players believe. This latest setback only served to demonstrate that. Lo and behold, seven minutes later, Nketiah made it 1-1 after meeting Granit Xhaka’s fantastic cross with a close-range header past David de Gea to restore parity.
For an example of unshakeable belief, look no further than the 23-year-old. Questions about his suitability to lead the line for Arsenal have not ceased since Gabriel Jesus’ injury last month, but on Sunday, the forward produced a complete striker’s performance. Aside from his brace, Nketiah’s hold-up play was tremendous, his work rate off the ball was faultless and his appetite to get into scoring positions was unquestionable.
This display was one that exuded the total confidence of a player who has started throughout this Premier League campaign, rather than someone whose first league start came just under a month ago on Boxing Day. Surely now, he has done enough to earn the trust of his fans to spearhead their title charge.
As for fellow Hale End graduate Bukayo Saka, the winger had a scintillating second-half that signalled the attitude of a team ready to raise their level against the tough challenges lying in wait. His goal in the 53rd minute was a strike of pure beauty, as he cut in from the right wing and unleashed a curling shot into the bottom left corner – a page out of the Arjen Robben textbook.
On another day, Aaron Ramsdale would have been the hero after a marvellous save from a Rashford shot, not long after Saka’s superb goal. But moments later, when the England goalkeeper fumbled a cross from a corner, and Lisandro Martinez’s looping header put United back on level terms, two huge points also appeared to be dropped by Arsenal’s number one.
Except the manager believes. A point at home versus an in-form United might have been satisfactory in years gone by, but Mikel Arteta had no intentions of seeing his side settle for a draw. The Spaniard was constantly racing along his touchline, cajoling the crowd into lending their vociferous support, as he called on his team to increase their intensity in the closing stagesrt
And they duly obliged. Saka nearly repeated his earlier trick on the right-hand side, but shaved the post with his effort. Nketiah had a shot well saved by De Gea with around five minutes to go. Ten Hag and United were intent on firmly shutting the door to deny any more attacking opportunities, but the hinges were creaking, as Arsenal kept piling on increasing attacking pressure.
With former fan favourite Tomas Rosicky in attendance, the introduction of Leandro Trossard for his full club debut on the 83rd minute became very fitting. The Gunners’ new number 19 energised the home crowd further, providing added thrust with his driving runs, almost serving as an homage to the Czech maestro’s many outings in a red and white shirt.
As the clock approached 90 minutes, the Belgian initiated the move for the winning goal, driving at United’s defence before Zinchenko’s cross and Odegaard’s scuffed shot led to Nketiah’s clever flicked finish. Cue pandemonium. Bedlam. Limbs.
If there were deafening screams from the bottom of lungs after Nketiah scored, guttural roars from the depth of souls were heard when the goal was upheld by VAR, not least from Oleksandr Zinchenko, who excelled once again in his inverted left-back role but has also proved a pivotal pillar off the pitch in Arsenal’s success this season.
Indeed, the final-whistle celebrations said it all. Arteta passionately embracing his coaching staff on the touchline. Granit Xhaka’s lap of the pitch, rallying the fans and ecstatically waving his arms in the air. Supporters bouncing in the stands, shouting in full voice: “We are top of the league!”
Whether Arsenal will finally claim their first league title in nineteen years was perhaps not the main question that was answered on Sunday. Instead, what could be argued was whether victory over United would allow players and supporters alike to truly believe their dream may be possible.
Sunday supplied us with a resounding answer on how Arsenal will view this next half of the Premier League season.
This is a club that believes.
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