Good evening. With no team showing any great inclination to win the Premier League this season, tonight's potentially spicy set-to at Old Trafford presents as good an opportunity as any for two of the main title contenders to grab proceedings by the scruff of the neck and give them a good shake. Arsenal currently bestride the Premier League, but not so much like a colossus as the victim of a parade ground stitch-up who finds himself reporting for potato-peeling duty after all his fellow recruits conspired to take one step backwards upon asked to "volunteer".
Ahead of Manchester City on goal difference with a game in hand, a win for Arsenal tonight would leave them three points clear of a chasing posse. Should United prevail, they'll go two points clear at the League summit, with an eminently-winnable-but-tricky-nonetheless postponed appointment at Bloomfield Road in hand over their title rivals.
Tonight's match is United's first at home since hammering seven nails into just-sacked Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce's coffin and the same eleven players who began that match are available to Sir Alex Ferguson tonight. However, Darren Fletcher could replace Michael Carrick, while Paul Scholes returns from injury and is fit to replace Anderson if an older, wiser and more experienced head is required in the centre of midfield.
For Arsenal, minute-by-minute reporter's nightmare Wojciech Szczesny could make his Premier League debut filling in for his Polish compatriot Lukasz Fabianski, who is struggling with a leg injury, while Arsene Wenger will leave it late before deciding whether or not to risk his skipper Cesc Fabregas, who continues to struggle with a hamstring injury. Sebastien Squillaci is likely to get the nod to partner Laurent Koscielny in central defence ahead of Johan Djourou, while Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are set to replace Robin van Persie and and Denilson in the Arsenal side that beat Partizan Belgrade in the Champions League last week.
Man Utd with no Berbatov: Van der Sar, Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Nani, Rooney, Park.
Subs: Kuszczak, Brown, Berbatov, Giggs, Smalling, Hernandez, Obertan.
Arsenal with no Fabregas: Szczesny, Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy, Song, Rosicky, Wilshere, Nasri, Chamakh, Arshavin.
Subs: Fabianski, Fabregas, van Persie, Walcott, Denilson, Djourou, Bendtner.
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)
Rancour news: While there's no love lost between fans and players of these two grand old clubs, their managers appear to be mellowing with old each. Having been barely able to hide their contempt for each other in the past, Sir alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have been saying nice things about each other in the build-up to this match, in the wake of a thaw in pantomime hostilities that first became apparent during this cosy chat at a League Managers Association charity do last year, at which the Manchester United manager appeared to be in a state of extreme relaxation (watch from 1min 29sec).
An email: "The game hasn't even started and I have no fingernails left!" writers Michell Peters-Jones, who is either very, very nervous or being tortured by somebody wielding pliers. "This is a really really crucial game for us ... a win will bring about huge confidence in the Arsenal side, which really needs it. That's stating the obvious though isn't it? That said, I would happily take a draw here, as opposed to a repeat of that horrendous defeat at Chelsea." My modest sum is on an Arsenal win, which would suggest anything but is assured.
That said ... When the proprietor of the excellent Arseblog played his usual Fifa 2011 warm-up game with today's expected line-ups, Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners with Andrei Arshavin bagging a brace, Jack Wilshere getting the other one and Nani scoring for United with a free-kick. On a sour note for Gooners, their side had to play out the last 25 minutes with nine men after Cesc Fabregas and Wilshere got sent off.
Not long now: Considering he scored five goals in his last Premier League outing, Dimitar Berbatov could be forgiven for feeling a bit miffed about being left out tonight, but we can only assume that Sir Alex Ferguson has decided Park's decidedly more protestant work ethic will be needed tonight.
Pre-match niceties: The teams click-clack down the tunnel, with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger following a few minutes later.
1 min: Manchester United kick off playing from left to right in their usual home strip of red shirts, white shorts and black socks with red trim. Arsenal's players wear yellow shirts and socks, with maroony-red wine coloured shorts.
2 min: Early jitters from Wojciech Szczesny, who's fluffs a clearance when a team-mate rolls a back-pass towards him to give him an early touch on his Premier League debut. His hoofed clearance doesn't achieve lift-off and catches Koscielny by surprise, but disaster is averted when Wayne Rooney, who'd been chasing the original back-pass, is penalised for offside.
3 min: Arsenal find space on the edge of the United penalty area, where Arshavin cuts in from the left and squares the ball for Song. His touch is leaden-footed, allowing Vidic to dispossess him with a meaty challenge.
4 min: United win a free-kick about 40 yards from the Arsenal goal, well right of centre, after a Clichy foul on Nani. He goes down rubbing his achilles and needs to get treatment. The ball's lofted into the mixer, but instantly cleared. Clichy was lucky to escape without a booking for that crude, late challenge on Nani.
6 min: It's a lively, kick-and-rush headless chicken of a start, but without anything being created in the way of chances. Arsenal look to have lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Alex Song protecting his back four, behind a midfield bookended by Rosicky on the right and Arshavin on the left, with Wilshere and Nasri in the centre. United are playing a 4-3-3, with Fletcher and Anderson on the right and left of deep-lying quarterback Michael Carrick. Nani and Park are on the right and left of Wayne Rooney up front.
10 min: Koscielny concedes a free-kick in the centre-circle after getting up close and personal on Wayne Rooney.
11 min: Moments before that foul, Rooney had caused minor pandemonium in the Arsenal defensive ranks, latching on to a long ball from defence while standing with his back to Koscielny and Squillaci, before jinking this way and that, eventually managing to turn and carving out room for a shot. His low drive was on target but didn't trouble Szczesny unduly.
13 min: Szczesny is pressed into service again, comfortably saving a long-range free-kick from Nani that was hit straight at him.
14 min: "As you undoubtedly know, Wojchiech/Woyzeck/Wozzek is the name of an unfinished play by Carl Georg Büchner (1813 - 37), subsequently developed into an atonal opera by Alban Berg (to which I'm convinced you'd listen nightly throughout your troubled teens) and a movie by Werner Herzog," writes Arthur Smith. "Long story short, the play concerns itself with class, power structures, violence and dehumanisation, and Wojchiech, a young soldier, tragically ends up killing his lover Marie before drowning. How, dear Barry, will this affect tonight's game?"
16 min: Deep in Manchester United territory on the right touchline, Andrei Arshavin shoulders Patrice Evra off the ball and crosses it into the penalty area. There's nobody there to capitalise and the ball runs out to the left wing, where Arshavin should be. As he's not there, Rafael Da Silva is able to clear the ball at his leisure.
18 min: Even though they should probably be back at work down the pit by now, there are 33 limelight-hogging Chilean miners visiting Old Trafford tonight as guests of Manchester United. "Has Fergie named 33 substitutes from Chile to dig him out of a hole if necessary?" asks Colyn Alcock, who should probably steer clear of pun-based banter with a name like that.
21 min: With 20 minutes gone, neither team has found their rhythm yet. There still hasn't been a chance of note to speak of.
22 min: Now there has! With a sizeable portion of the Arsenal goal gaping, Nani sends a diagonal drive flashing inches wide of the far upright after being teed up by a woeful attempted clearance of a Darren Fletcher cross by Koscielny.
24 min: In the Manchester United penalty area, Marouane Chamakh goes down in a tangle with Rafael Da Silva as both men contest a cross from the right. There's a half-hearted appeal for a penalty, but none is forthcoming.
25 min: Arsenal win a free-kick a little inside their own half, which is hoofed forward by Squillaci. It's only half-cleared by Da Silva, resulting in an Arsenal throw-in deep in United territory. From that, they win a corner which is played short. That's that, then. Has any good ever come of a short corner, not counting the deluge of examples I'm imploring you not to send me?
29 min: Manchester United win a corner, which Nani swings in from the left. Marouane Chamakh clears at the near post. It's returned with interest, where defensive linchpin Chamakh attempts to head clear again, only for the ball to hit his outstretched right arm and hand. There's a very loud penalty appeal, but Howard Webb appears uninterested. Chamakh puffs out his cheeks in a physical demonstration of what looks suspiciously like relief.
32 min: Thundering forward from midfield, Fletcher latches on to a poor Koscielny clearance and bears down on Arsenal's defence. Gael Clichy relieves him of possession and clears.
33 min: What this match really needs is for one of the star turns from either side to get their foot on the ball, take a deep breath and start dictating the play with a modicum of the composure that's been conspicuous by its absence thus far. This is like a gang of kids playing kick-and-rush at the moment.
35 min: Fletcher and Nani combine well in midfield to ping the ball out towards Carrick on the right flank. Before he has time to settle, there are three Arsenal players swarming around him, forcing him to hurry his dink over the top into the path of Rooney. The ball bounces too close to Arsenal Goalkeeper (sorry, I've given up trying to type his name - it's really difficult), who claims comfortably.
37 min: Howard Webb has a word with Nemanja Vidic for a late challenge that leaves Chamakh writhing in pain on the ground, but doesn't book him. A moment later, he gives Darren Fletcher a ticking-off for playing outraged, chippy Scotsman after being denied a free-kick for a blatant bit of obstruction by Alexandre Song, who had body-checked him as he tried to run on to the return-pass of a one-two with Nani.
GOAL! Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal (Park 40) Nani takes on Clichy down the right flank, sends a deflected cross into the corridor of uncertainty, where Park sends a looping, lobbing header over Arsenal Goalkeeper and into the Arsenal goal. That was a marvellous header - standing 10 yards out from goal, he had to contort his body by leaning backwards and sideways to get his head to the ball, but still succeeded in steering it over Koscielney, his marker, and Arsenal Goalkeeper, who was standing a couple of yards off his line and helpless to prevent the ball looping header that evaded his outstretched hand and dropped in the top left-hand corner.
45 min: The name of Marouane Chamakh goes into referee Howard Webb's notebook for a lunge on Nani. There'll be two minutes of injury time.
45+2 min: Howard Webb reaches for his pencil again, before scribbling the name "A-n-d-r-e-i A-r-s-h-a-v-i-n" on to his yellow card. The Russian's been booked for a foul on Darren Fletcher on the edge of his own penalty area. The resulting free-kick is both (a) rubbish and (b) the last attack of note in the first half. Manchester United go in a goal up at half time. If Arsenal are to win this match, they'll have to do something they've never done in the Premier League before: score two goals at Old Trafford. Richard Keys just came out with that nugget on TV so I presume he means they haven't done it since Sky invented football in 1992.
Half-time analysis: "It's called 'COPY PASTE', Mr. Guardian Reporter; his name is Szczesny," writes Trond Øverland, who doesn't seem to have considered that once I've COPY PASTED his helpful email, Arsenal Goalkeeper's name is no longer copied, on file and available to paste. Scrolling all the way down to the team line-up, to copy with a view to pasting once you've scrolled all the way back again isn't exactly what I'd describe as a "quick fix".
Meanwhile in the stands: The cameras cut to the crowd, where some Chilean miners are being pestered by David Beckham, who wants to have his photo taken with them. Or are they pestering him? It's difficult to tell. Now the camera cuts to apologetic one-time sexaholic crooner Mick Hucknall, who is wearing sunglasses. Needless to say, there isn't a Chilean miner anywhere near him. Even they aren't wearing sunglasses any more, presumably because they'd rather go blind than risk incurring the ridicule that would surely come their way for wearing shades outdoors on a December night in Manchester.
What a preposterous buffoon Hucknall is. Is there no chance he could get trapped down a very deep hole in Chile? He certainly seems to have spent a lot of time in the 80s exploring various dark tunnels, if this ludicrous recent brag masquerading as an apology is anything to go by.
Second half: Arsenal kick off. There are no changes on either side, although Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott are limbering up on the sideline.
47 min: Anderson, Park and Rooney combine well down Arsenal's left in an attack that breaks down on the edge of the final third. Arsenal clear and the ball drops for Tomas Rosicky on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area, well right of centre. He swings a boot and connects, but his effort wheeshes well wide of the far post.
49 min: Manchester United win a corner following a defensive rick by Song. Nani fails to clear the first defender with the ensuing outswinger that could have been more costly. That's dreadful.
50 min: If you're wondering why Nasri hasn't been getting any mentions, it's because he's isolated out on the right and has been for most of the game. It seems an odd place to station him, considering most people were expecting him to fill the Fabregas-shaped hole in the Arsenal engine room.
52 min: Rafael Da Silva gets a crucial interception on a Sagna cross from the right that was heading straight for Chamakh at the far post. From the ensuing corner, United launch a quick counter-attack from which nothing comes.
53 min: Arsenal Goalkeeper saves well from Anderson, who looked certain to score after the ball squirted his way on the edge of the six-yard box after good work by Rooney whose weighted two-yard pass was inch perfect. With the goal gaping, he attempted to clip the ball over the onrushing Arsenal Goalkeeper, who stood his ground and saved well.
54 min: Van Der Sar concedes a corner, getting down to save Chamakh's diagonal 20-yard daisy-cutter with his outstretched hand.
58 min: After sustained Arsenal pressure, United break in a lightning-fast three-on-three counter. Anderson tries to pick out Nani on the right, but Clichy sticks out a toe to make a crucial interception. He undoes his own good work by falling over and gifting the ball to Nani, who finds himself through on goal with only Arsenal Goalkeeper to beat. Perhaps blinded by the whites of the rookie keeper's eyes, he snatches at his shot and skies the ball over the crossbar. He should have scored.
61 min: Rooney finds a yard on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area and tries a shot that's blocked by Squillaci. Seconds later, United win a corner, then another one.
62 min: Nani sends the inswinger into the mixer, where Clichy heads clear. Arsenal are about to bring on Cesc Fabregas.
63 min: Arsenal double-substitution: Rosicky and Wilshere off, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie on. That's some serious artillery to have in reserve, eh?
64 min: Andrei Arshavin tries a shot from distance that skids along the turf into the arms of Edwin van der Sar.
65 min: Manchester United win a free-kick so deep in Arsenal territory it might as well be a corner. Nani sends it into the crowded penalty area, where Squillaci hacks clear.
67 min: Bakari Sagna goes down injured after Rio Ferdinand jumped into his ribcage foot first as the pair contested a high ball. "Same old Arsenal, always cheating!" chorus the Manchester United supporters, as Sagna runs back on to the field after receiving treatment with a big footprint clearly visible on the front of his shirt.
69 min: "I know it's meant to be aminute-by-minute report, not an IT support session, but I can recommend this tool as a way to store multiple items all at once and choose which to paste," writes Mark Ireland. "Then you can store a dozen or more choice insults and deploy them at angry Norwegian readers at a second's notice."
PENALTY FOR MANCHESTER UNITED! On all fours after being taken on down the inside-right flank by Nani, Clichy is penalised for handball after being spotted by the linesman, who flags. Howard Webb points to the spot, before booking the Arsenal defender for dissent when he complains at great length and posdsibly with some justification, that it was a harsh decision. From the only look at the incident I've had, it looked as if Nani kicked the ball against his arm Clichy was using to support himself after going to ground.
ROONEY MISSES! With a wild slash, Rooney sends a comically inept penalty high over the cross-bar, out of the stadium and sailing towards outer space. That was dreadful. Truly dreadful.
75 min: Oh Wayne.
76 min: Arsenal substitution: Andrei Arshavin off after yet another decidedly unconvincing display, Theo Walcott on.
77 min: Why did I bet on Arsenal? Do I never learn? They're flaky, windy and thoroughly unreliable, grumbles minute-by-minute reporter in last-ditch bid to tempt fate.
79 min: Van Persie comes deep to pick up a ball from Nasri and ambles forward. He plays it out towards the left wing and the ball eventually finds its way to Walcott, whose long-range shank is always curling away from the left upright.
80 min: Fletcher concedes a free-kick for a high boot about 60 yards from his own goal. The ball's played into the United penalty area, but headed straight into the ground, allowing Van der Sar to collect.
82 min: United attack down the inside right, with Fletcher and Nani combining with a one-two. It almost becomes a one-two-three (or should that be a one-two-one) when Nani plays a weighted ball along the right side of the penalty area for Fletcher to chase, but Clichy clears.
83 min: Song tries to thread a thorough-ball into the Manchester United penalty area, but Evra intercepts, charges out of defence and forces a foul out of the Arsenal midfielder.
84 min: Manchester United substitution: Anderson off, Ryan Giggs on.
85 min: Rooney beats Koscielny for toe in a sprint to latch on to a long ball from the back, spots Arsenal Goalkeeper off his line and attempts to lob him. His audacious effort looks inch-perfect, but Arsenal Goalkeeper denies him with a fine fingertip save.
88 min: Arsenal go forward in a bid to rescue a point from this match. They probably don't deserve one, because their performance has been witless, disjointed and chaotic in contrast to United's more assured but far-from perfect display. Sir Alex Ferguson seems to have the hex on Arsene Wenger and it's not difficult to see why considering the Arsenal manager has a habit of playing right into his opposite number's hands more often than not.
90+2 min: We're in the second of four minutes of added time. On the sideline, Arsene Wenger looks mightily peed off. I don't blame him - there may only be a goal in it, but his side have been second best in pretty much every department. They haven't got going at all.
90+3 min: Theo Walcott skies a late half-chance high over the crossbar from distance.
90+4 min: As the clock ticks down, Patrice Evra gallops into the Arsenal half as Manchester United launch a late counter-attack. With Gael Clichy rushing out to tackle him, Howard Webb decides enough is enough and raises his whistle to his lips.
Peep! Peep! Peeeeeeeeeeeeep! It's all over - Manchester United run out deserving winners of a largely scrappy but reasonably engaging encounter with the only goal of the game to go two points clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table with a game in hand.
Post-match grumbling: "Why are those miners being entertained at Old Trafford?" asks empathy's Paul Whitfield. "I am glad they are alive and all, but hanging around in the dark waiting to be saved is what you, me and anyone else without an ounce of bravery would have done in the same situation. It is hardly the stuff of super heroes and yet they get a world tour out of it!" Are you glad they're alive, Paul? Are you really? Because that's not how it sounds. Would you prefer if the money that was "wasted" on their rescue attempt went towards the price of a new centre-forward for whichever team it is you support?