[Premier League] Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal
ManUtd: Robin van Persie (27)
Robin van Persie's superb header accounted for Barclays Premier League leaders Arsenal and catapulted Manchester United firmly into the title race on a tense afternoon at Old Trafford.
In a game of few chances, the Dutchman's first-half header from a Wayne Rooney corner made the tangible difference between champions and pace-setters, but the foundations for success were built on a magnificently dogged defensive display from David Moyes' men.
The United manager opted to field Phil Jones in a withdrawn central midfield role alongside Michael Carrick, safeguarding against the Gunners' advanced midfield threat, and the move almost totally stifled the visitors' creativity in central areas.
A forward four of van Persie, Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa, meanwhile, offered United plenty of attacking menace. A cagey opening to the game yielded plenty of possession for United, but the clear mutual respect shared by the sides meant a dearth of chances.
When United forged ahead, it was with virtually the game's first attempt of note. Moments after a dangerous Rooney cross had been headed behind, the England striker swung in an equally threatening corner which van Persie reached ahead of Olivier Giroud to help a fine header into Szczesny's top corner.
Though Arsenal responded positively, their first attempt on goal didn't arrive until Giroud's 36th-minute header, which sailed comfortably off-target. Steadier was the flow of bookings. Bacary Sagna and Mathieu Flamini were cautioned, the latter for a lunge on Phil Jones, himself booked moments earlier for an apparently legitimate aerial challenge on Szczesny.
United's half-time lead was fully deserved, but it was Arsenal who began the second period with the greater purpose. Mesut Ozil thrashed a close-range effort into David De Gea's side netting to serve notice of the Gunners' growing intent, although Rooney's low, left-footed effort came within a whisker of doubling the Reds' advantage on the hour.
For the most part, Arsenal were on the front foot and United, backed by a wall of noise from the home support, were required to put in a dogged defensive shift, with Jones - returned to centre-back after an injury to Nemanja Vidic - particularly outstanding.
Chris Smalling headed wastefully wide from a quick van Persie free-kick nine minutes from time, but quickly atoned with a brilliant block to save the day as Giroud looked set to haul the visitors level. That intervention typified United's play on an afternoon when the champions laid bare their mettle for all to see.
The Match A throwback to United-Arsenal encounters of the mid-2000s, with United's charged up approach and resolute defending ultimately winning the day. David Moyes' champions bossed matters in the first period and deservedly led, and were forced to demonstrate their ability to see off Arsenal's regular forays thereafter. With a little more composure in front of goal, there might have been greater comfort to the scoreline, with Wayne Rooney and Chris Smalling both passing up inviting openings.
Goals Heading may not be the most fruitful facet of Robin van Persie's supreme goalscoring, but the Dutchman's deft treatment of Rooney's corner was sublime, guiding the ball expertly into one of very few untended spots in the Arsenal goal.
Star men At one end of the field, Smalling and Phil Jones were immaculate, and at the other Rooney achieved near-omnipresence and van Persie gave a masterclass in rendering much from little, while all around them red shirts were soaked to saturation. Supporters could be proud of every single player on display.
Sub-plot Both sides' credentials as title contenders were under intense scrutiny throughout, and the evidence suggested that both will be in the hunt this term. United's resolve was evident throughout, while Arsenal's improvement might have brought an extremely useful point on another day. With no one team as yet outstanding this term, these two sides have as strong a claim as any to be champions next May.
Move of the match A delightful 51st-minute piece of play ultimately fizzled out into nothing, but had the home support on their feet. Smalling's clearance found van Persie, running towards his own goal, and the Dutchman held off three opponents before threading a pass to Kagawa, whose neat back-heel in turn found Rooney to spread the play. A study in the composed release of pressure.
Opposition Before the break, Arsenal showed little of the attacking invention and incision that has characterised their season so far, but they were far more familiar in the second period. Arsene Wenger's use of Bacary Sagna might have prompted greater reward on another day, with the Frenchman slinging a spate of inviting crosses into dangerous areas, only for Arsenal to fail to load the area with enough personnel.
In the stands Ahead of kick-off, a minute's silence for Remembrance Sunday was impeccably observed by both sets of supporters, but on either side of it, the pre-match atmosphere simmered nicely, with the general mood buoyed by unexpected defeats for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Thereafter, much of the chanting revolved around van Persie, with the away support's baiting of him gleefully answered by both the striker and Old Trafford's vocal majority. As Arsenal grew in the second period, the choral backing of the home fans galvanised United's dogged performance.