Aaron Ramsey's second-half strike gave Arsenal a deserved win and set up a title decider between Chelsea and United
Afternoon. Forget signing goalkeepers who can catch, defenders who can defend or an experienced snarler in the middle of the park, what Arsenal need to do more than anything else is reduce the size of the Emirates pitch. At Highbury, Arsène Wenger's teams were often so devastating because they were technically more able than their opponents at keeping possession in tight situations and pinging passes around dazzled opponents as though playing five-a-side.
The bigger playing surface at the Emirates levels things in my opinion, as beautiful as Arsenal's play can often be on it. They won't have Cesc Fábregas pinging passes anywhere today, mind. He picked up an injury in training yesterday, apparently, so it'll be a midfield of Song, Wilshere and Ramsey, who will likely play in Fábregas's position.
Arsenal team: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, Nasri, Van Persie.
Subs: Lehmann, Squillaci, Arshavin, Eboué, Gibbs, Chamakh, Bendtner.
Manchester United team: Van der Sar; Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio; Park, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Chicharito.
Subs: Kuszczak, Owen, Berbatov, Smalling, Rafael Da Silva, O'Shea,
Referee: Chris Foy
I'll have a bit more squad news shortly.
Arsenal's midfield still looks pretty strong, mind: Song, Wilshere and Ramsey will be a match for Carrick and Anderson. There'll be a lot of pressure on Ramsey to try and step up and be the more offensive of the three. United are a strange breed ... Ferguson's midfield has been chopped and changed all season and yet still he has got results.
A question for United fans. If United win the league (they need two wins from four), where does this team rate against the other title-winning teams? It's almost a cliché to suggest that they haven't been great and that the Premier League has been poor this season, but have they been that much poorer than Ferguson's other Premier League-winning teams? I think they have, by the way, but that says a lot about how good Ferguson is as a manager. Particularly the way he fostered that embattled spirit after going off on one about Martin Atkinson ...
That Royal wedding was a joyless occasion wasn't it?
It would be nice if there was a goal like this today ...
Ferguson has just explained that Ryan Giggs has flu so that's why he's missing. And the reason he's playing Nani instead of Valencia is that he feels Nani always does well against Arsenal.
Wenger pretty much admitted that Arsenal are playing for pride and to make sure they don't miss out on Champions League football.
My prediction: Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United
A couple of final scores for you: Liverpool 3-0 Newcastle. Liverpool go fifth. Birmingham 1-1 Wolves. So Wolves move two points clear of West Ham who are bottom and play Man City later on.
A Manchester United fan writes: "The strength of this MU side is the teamwork not the individuals, so it's harsh and unfair to compare them. This has never stopped me before, so: SAF's two greatest sides are the 1994 double side and the 1999 treble side. Only Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evra would get into the 1994 side (and Evra only gets in by moving Irwin to RB) for Pallister, Bruce, and Parker. Only Vidic and Rooney would get into the 1999 side (for Johnson and Cole). Only Vidic would be considered for a "SAF-era-best-of" team: Schmeichel, Irwin, Vidic, Stam, GNeville, Giggs 1994, Scholes 1999, Keane, Kanchelskis, Cantona, Hughes. Having said all that I'm very impressed with the achievement of the 2011 MU team up to now." David Acaster really didn't need to put the G in front of Neville.
The teams are out so I'm watching some god awful BMW advert so can't tell you about the atmosphere or any of the scene-setting business. It's sunny in north London, I can tell you that though. Kings Cross and it's array of dirty pavements and 'special' bookshops almost looks 'nice' today.
"The Royal wedding's not entirely joyless from me, I genuinely have no interest whatsoever, I assume he wasn't left at the altar. The two parts to weigh up were cost to the country V day off work. I don't know the former, the latter was pleasant," says Duncan Smith. I was in work Duncan so it was unpleasant as it was bouncing around the office like a disruptive, annoying posh person.
Peep! Chris Foy gets us underway. Arsenal are shooting from left to right on my telly. Arsenal in white, United in black, so paint a picture in your mind if you like.
Wilshere drags a shot wide 15 yards from goal after a cock-up from Vidic. Some lovely interplay between himself, Van Persie and Song preceded a cross being played in by Walcott who drilled it in to the six-yard box with pace. Ferdinand cleared straight at Vidic, who panicked and poked the ball to Wilshere, but the youngster dragged his left-footer wide under pressure.
Arsenal have started the match full of confidence. They look comfortable on the ball and seem content to keep possession and up the pace when necessary.
Nasri works the ball out to Clichy on the overlap on the left. He charges up to the edge of the box and curls a delicious ball around Vidic to Walcott who has bust a gut to get ahead of the defender but pokes the ball over the bar from eight yards on the stretch. It was a half-chance but difficult given that he was under pressure it wasn't easy. Again, positive from Arsenal.
"The Royal wedding was a joyless occasion for foaming-at-the-mouth republicans, whilst it was a celebration of all things British for foaming-at-the-mouth royalists," barks Liban Saleh, making me grab my mush and check whether there's any remnants of foam left on it after Friday. "For those of us who didn't give a s*** (i.e. most of Britain), it was day off, a chance for the blokes to ogle some posh totty, and a chance for the ladies to bitch about the fashion on show (not that that is in anyway stereotypical...). Oh, and 2-1 to United." Arsenal have slowed the pace a bit now. Pass, pass, pass, but in more harmless areas.
"You wrote 'Arsenal in white, United in black. Are you trying to tell us you're watching a black and white telly? I know times are tough," Writes a concerned Mark, who has no surname. Yeah, shambolic stuff. Red and white, red and white, repeat ...
Arsenal continue to dominate. Van Persie steps to his left on the edge of the area and drives a dangerous ball towards Walcott at the back post, who only has to tap the ball in to score, but Evra stretches brilliantly to poke the ball wide for a corner. Great defending. Walcott's doing well so far.
United look a bit lacklustre.
Chris Foy waves away the clearest foul you'll ever see a yard outside the Man Utd 18-yard box. Wilshere is played in front of Ferdinand by Nasri, and Vidic throws his body in front of Wilshere as if he's lying down for a bit of shut-eye to bring him down. But nothing doing says Foy. Bizarre ...
United work their first chance of the match, Fabio working his way into the box on the right and trying to pull the ball back for Hernández (that's his name not Chicarito, Little Pea, Jazzy Jav or any other nickname nonsense), but his cross is blocked by Djourou and rolls out for a corner. That comes to nothin' ...
Wilshere is seeing a lot of the ball. He seems to be operating just behind Carrick and Anderson and is thus able to thread balls through them towards Ramsey, Van Persie and Walcott ahead of him.
"I do not think that pitch size at Highbury has anything to do with [Arsenal's better results], Vieira, Campbell, Petit, Henry and Bergkamp were just better footballers than the current incumbents ..." That's my hasty theory blown out by David in Canterbury.
Ramsey uses his strength to shrug off Anderson, who is no slouch, in midfield before working the ball wide right to Sagna, but the full-back does a good impression of a 3am-drunk and boots his own foot and watches the ball dribble to Evra stood a few yards in front of him.
Has Linda Howard had about 15 espressos or is she already on the frothy stuff? "It's a rainy Ohio 9:30am here and the atmosphere in my living room is electric. My life has been blissfully devoid of royal anything and of course Arsenal are positive and playing pretty football. It's the "interesting" things they do in their own box that have me considering a beer with my breakfast. That electricity? Nerves and a sense of de ja vu that looms like a vulture." That got a bit Charles Bukowski towards the end Linda. Arsenal are still bossing this at the moment, but for all their neat passing, United have not been ruffled. How often is that written? Sound guilty just typing it ...
Vidic has just got away with an absolute beaut of a handball. Walcott delivered his best cross of the match by a stretch, a lovely curling ball with pace aimed at the onrushing Van Persie on the six-yard box, but the Serbian's outstretched left-hand clips the ball and diverts it up, over Van Persie's head and out for a corner. That was sly as you like, but also so quick that not one Arsenal player contested it ...
A replay shows that Van Persie and Ramsey did contest the handball, giving the linesman on the left a right earful. Both Rafael and Anderson win a couple of reducers in midfield. It's the kind of passion that has been lacking in United's play so far. But how often do they step it up in the second-half of games? Don't answer. Just thinking out loud.
"Judging by Chris Foy's reluctance to call the Vidic foul, the Evra face grab on Wilshere, or bother to get out of the way of the ball, let alone look at it when it's around him tells me that he knows the inevitable result of this game just as well as we all do," soothsays Scott Stricker. Well Foy's from Merseyside Scott. Perhaps he's worried about being called to account for bias. Bit like myself I suppose ...
United win a corner on the left. They're in absolutely no hurry to take it. I think they're more than happy to keep Arsenal off the ball and have a breather. Rooney's booked for a push on Wilshere. Wilshere was rampaging down the left at the time. Seems slightly harsh though.
Koscielny undoes Clichy's fantastic piece of defending on the left by giving the ball away hopelessly after the left-back had outpaced Nani and prevented a corner by scooping the ball back inside to the central defender. Rooney's resulting cross is just too far in front of Hernández, however. Nice attempt to play him in though. United are starting to look a little surer.
"You'll find that both Van Persie and Wilshere (I think) protested, to no avail about the penalty. What are the rules? Was it just a peno, or would it have been a red as well?" asks Val Davey. It would have been hard to prove that Van Persie would have scored off the cross so it would probably have been a penalty and yellow card Val. Meanwhile Scott Stricker won't let our man in black today, Chris Foy, off the hook: "Manchester United's unbeaten run with Chris Foy as referee? 18 games and counting ..."
Chris Foy gets in the way of the ball again as Arsenal are passing it around in midfield. Steve Stricker is going to explode! The half ends with a barrage of boos as Foy walks off. Your emails to follow ...
Let me just clarify, the PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker is not emailing in. I'm just a shambles. His name is Scott Stricker. Although, that's not to say Steve Stricker isn't watching the match and might have felt like exploding ...
"Help settle an argument we're having at our pub - who's worse, Anderson or Denilson?" asks Jim Bach. Not that my opinion matters, but I'd argue that Anderson's passing is marginally worse.
"Is PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker an Arsenal fan then?" asks Niall Mullen. I don't know Niall. Can you tell us please Steve? Oh, just realised, you're name's Scott Stricker. Damn!
"I have to jump on the "What is Chris Moyes doing?!" bandwagon. I have not started drinking yet so I am certain my eyes are not playing tricks on me. I have never seen a ref physically get in the way of play like this before. Has anyone checked his breath?" I think Linda Howard is a comedy genius.
"Nani's performances on the pitch seem directly proportional to how sinister his moustache-ette is," offers Ciaran Mccaughey. "Perhaps it's the locus of his footballing ability. Gary Neville had something similar - although he got exponentially worse the more he tended towards an adolf toothbrush." Interesting theory Ciaran. Any other sinister moustache-wearing footballers who fit the bill?
Nasri has been replaced by Arshavin. Apparently he's strained his hamstring. That shouldn't affect Arsenal too much in my opinion. I think the midfield three of Song, Wilshere and Ramsey were the catalyst for Arsenal's good play in the first-half and overall domination.
United get a free-kick 30 yards from goal slightly left of centre. Looks like Rooney is lining it up ...
It's a thunderous attempt from Rooney, curled right to left. Szczesny paws it away to Evra, who is rushing in to get on the rebound, but his jabbed attempt at goal can't beat the narrow angle and nestles in the sidenetting. It's rare to see a curled free-kick hit as hard as Rooney caught that one.
United break after an Arsenal attack comes to nought down the left-hand side. Rooney shows a good turn of pace to accelerate through midfield, looking up to see if Hernández is free, before deciding to go it alone and being dispossessed by Koscielny. Rooney looked pumped up in that run. A positive sign for Ferguson. Not so for Wenger and Arsenal fans ...
The second-half looks to be much more open. United have begun positively and look more energetic on the break. Arsenal go close with a shot driven a couple of yards wide from Ramsey, before Hernández causes a few jitters in the Arsenal defence with a delicious whipped-in-ball from the right towards Rooney's head, but missing by inches.
Valencia is on for Anderson.
Robin Van Persie does wonderfully well on the left wing for Arsenal, accelerating away before jinking inside and delaying his cross until he draws in two Manchester United defenders, before delivering to Ramsey 12 yards from goal for the young Welshman to slot the ball into the bottom left-hand corner under pressure. It's a cool finish. His team need to be equally as cool now to weather the forthcoming United fightback, you feel.
It'll be interesting to see how United come back. Often you feel Sir Alex Ferguson's teams benefit from being stung into action by conceding a goal in games and then gathering a head of steam and going on to win games.
Vidic goes close with a header from six yards out as United do indeed react to the goal. Song is penalised for a foul on Evra. He gets a foot to the ball but takes Evra out. He's then booked for getting in a hot funk over the decision. Daft, really.
Here a rather apt email: "Is it me or does Song look like a little kid when he gives up a foul? He slumps his shoulders and walks away with his head down. I always think he's going to take his ball home."
Van der Sar scoops a backpass out for a throw-in under very little pressure. Park is booked for a high challenge on Sagna, grazing his studs down the full-back's thigh, but not in a nasty way. Just clumsy. Arsenal have been pretty composed in the last few minutes, keeping possession and closing the ball down feistily (is that a word?).
Evra has a half-hearted penalty appeal waved away. Sagna was shoulder-to-shoulder and kind of fell in front of the smaller Frenchman in the box on the left-hand side.
Djourou picks up an injury and is replaced by Squillaci, who gets a very lukewarm reception from Arsenal's fans. They do pretty much hate the guy though, I suppose.
Arsenal have used the ball very intelligently and haven't allowed United to get up their head of steam. Are any United fans nervous about this 19th title yet then?
"What are the odds on the The Squil scoring an own goal and Chicharito slotting home an 85th minute winner?" writes Vekram Jenarthanan. I'll guess not as long as you'd imagine.
Berbatov is on. Hernández is off. Ramsey handles on the edge of the box. Rooney lines it up, but curls it straight into the arms of Szczesny.
United are gathering momentum now. Berbatov controls well inside the Arsenal half and finds Valencia in space on the right. He stretches the Arsenal defence and clips in a ball towards Berbatov, but Arsenal clear. United are straight back at them and Rooney finds space on the right to drive into the box and whack his shot straight at Szczesny, who gets a strong hand to the ball.
Wilshere and Ramsey make football look simple (which it is, done properly), playing a number of one-twos between themselves as they shuffle up to the edge of the United penalty area, before playing Walcott in on the right, whose last contribution of the match is to play a low cross to the back post where Van Persie can't quite divert the ball into the goal from a narrowing angle.
Walcott is off and Eboué is on. Another lukewarm response greets another Arsenal substitute. His last deed in an Arsenal shirt was to shove over Lucas to give away the penalty against Liverpool which pretty much did for Arsenal's title hopes.
Arsenal waste a great chance to put the game to bed. Wilshere breaks forward for the Gunners, and under pressure from Rafael, works the ball out to Van Persie. He plays the ball against a falling Ferdinand and wins back possession, driving into the area and clipping a cross over his team-mates in the box, when a shot looked the better option.
Rafael gives away a free-kick on the edge of the box, but Van Persie wallops it straight down the throat of Van der Sar, who catches comfortably.
Owen is on for Carrick. This is a rollicking end to the match. Both sides breaking on every attack. United are rampaging forwards at every opportunity. Arsenal need to take care not to commit too many players forwards when they win back possession or a draw is on the cards.
"It's only Liverpool fans go about this being the 19th title Gregg ;)" Why the smiley face Gavin Kearney? Owen goes down in the box after Clichy throws a leg to his side, grazing the little striker, who makes an awful lot of it. I'd say it was 50/50. A let off for Arsenal ...
Owen goes down again, but on this occasion he doesn't appeal. Ferguson looks pretty miffed about that last shout. Four minutes of injury time. Fergie looks miffed again. Presume he had a couple more minutes on his watch ...
Valencia drifts off his marker on the back post and almost gets on to the end of a cross floated in towards him, but he can't get his leg over it to volley on goal and the ball deflects off his boot for a goal-kick and some Arsenal breathing space.
Szczesny plucks the ball out of the air after the umpteenth United cross in the past couple of minutes. Whistles of anguish are sounding out at the Emirates. Rooney is brought down. Free-kick 30 yards from goal ...
Nani drives the free-kick straight into the wall to a tumult of cheers from the Arsenal fans.
And on this occasion Eboué doesn't push anyone over in the box, no Arsenal players pull out a revolver and shoot themselves in the foot and the whistle goes to signal full-time. Too little too late from Arsenal, but it throws the title race open for next week's match between United and Chelsea at Old Trafford. Thanks for all your emails.