Manchester United blow their last chance after draw with Arsenal
There was a time when Manchester United teams would swagger into the Emirates with as much expectation, if not more, of winning as the home team.
But these are different days, days when they can no longer bully Arsenal as they once did – when they struggle to bully anyone – and, for David Moyes, a draw last night was enough.
It changes very little about his club's parlous situation in the Premier League, where they remain in seventh place on a night when a win for Liverpool put United even further away from fourth.
Champions League football? It will take an incredible series of results to make that happen now.
Yet for United, avoiding defeat was the only thing that mattered last night.
They are without a win in three league games, the draw with Fulham on Sunday must have felt like a loss, and they could not afford to go down to Arsène Wenger's team.
A draw was far from satisfactory for Wenger, with his side unable to punish Chelsea's failure to beat West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday or get that heavy defeat to Liverpool on Saturday out of their system.
They controlled much of the game and had the greater volume of chances, but this was a missed opportunity to beat old rivals who find themselves vulnerable.
All told, it was not a classic – even taking into consideration a frantic ending. It was a long way from those days when these two sides divided up the spoils in English football at the turn of the millennium.
For United, this was a stadium they once came to and won a Champions League semi-final second leg 3-1. By the end of the game they were forced to cling on as Arsenal, the better team on the night, whipped up a storm of attacks to try to win the match.
It was, at the very least, a more solid performance from United in the first half than the one that allowed Fulham in to score their opener at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Moyes stayed with the same back four that had creaked badly at times three days earlier. They could not afford the same lapses in concentration.
Arsenal enjoyed most of the possession in the first half and they ran the midfield where, for United, Tom Cleverley returned in the centre alongside Michael Carrick. Yet there was not the range of chances they might have expected with such a lot of the ball at the feet of Jack Wilshere and Mesut Özil. In fact, Arsenal went closest from set pieces.
Never more so than early on when Nemanja Vidic came for a header and missed it entirely, allowing Olivier Giroud a sight of goal. He glanced the ball wide. It was another moment from the United captain that will have made his manager (below) wince.
This is not shaping up as the most auspicious farewell but, in Vidic's defence, he was better for the rest of the half.
Giroud looked dangerous on set pieces and there was another header directed over the bar later in the half. But the home team failed to get behind the United defence consistently and there were no major tests for David de Gea.
The best chance before half-time fell to United, when Robin van Persie robbed the ball from Mikel Arteta within the first two minutes.
The Arsenal captain turned away from goal and straight into the path of the Dutch striker, who took the ball left and did not give himself many options other than a difficult shot into the near top corner.
In the end, he hit the ball straight at Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal.
As for Juan Mata, he found himself trying to pinch the ball on the edge of the United area and catch up with the counter-attacks on the few occasions they happened.
It was not the night for him to orchestrate play, certainly not in the first half. His touch remains as elegant as ever. But United could not get the ball to him often enough.
Rafael did not make it back for the second half, having turned over in mid-air while challenging Giroud for a header in the latter stages of the first half and landing on the top of his back. Rio Ferdinand came on in his place, Smalling moved over to right back and United prepared to face down a more serious onslaught.
Arsenal really cranked the pressure up around the hour, when Antonio Valencia was obliged to clear a header from Laurent Koscielny off the line – as close as Arsenal had come to scoring at that point.
Giroud saw another header go wide and had a half-decent appeal for a penalty turned down. It would have been harsh on Vidic but he certainly pushed the striker.
The pressure intensified on United, and Giroud failed to connect with an inviting cross from Bacary Sagna on 76 minutes that needed just a little contact to direct past De Gea.
Yet still United went the closest. Wilshere delayed releasing the ball in midfield and was robbed by Carrick.
From there it went to Van Persie and on to Rooney, who struck a beautifully flighted cross with his right foot to the back post where Van Persie had made his run.
His header was powerful but somehow Szczesny managed to push it on to the frame of the goal.