| Ruud van Nistelrooy pushes past Sol Campbell during Manchester United’s crucial Premier League encounter against Arsenal at Highbury Wednesday. (AFP)
All shared points are equal but some are more equal than others. A smiling Sir Alex Ferguson will have loved this draw gained at the home of his biggest rivals Wednesday night. Not only does it keep Manchester United three points clear of Arsenal but the champions finished with some notable absentees (as briefly reported in Thursday’s Late City edition).
With eight minutes remaining, Sol Campbell was deservedly dismissed for flicking an elbow into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s face right in front of the linesman, Nigel Miller, who duly informed the outstanding referee Mark Halsey.
Campbell’s second red card of the season — Arsenal’s 49th under Arsene Wenger — will trigger a four-game ban which will rule him out of the FA Cup final and substantial stops in Arsenal’s run-in.
As equally worrying as the loss of their most commanding defender was the inability of Patrick Vieira to last the course, the Arsenal captain limping from the fray. No wonder Wenger was so incensed at the end and Ferguson so happy.
The hymn-singing Ferguson had been in “All things bright and beautiful” mood, revelling in Van Nistelrooy’s strike, until early in the second half when Henry deflected in Cole’s shot and then the Frenchman swept Arsenal ahead. But then Giggs equalised to set up the most breathless of finales, a fitting advertisement for Premiership fare beamed around the world.
Here was English football at its intoxicating best, full of nip and tuck, end-to-end moves, wonderful waves flowing between a transfixed Clock End and North Bank. It encapsulated all the rivalry between the Premiership’s finest sides, well-matched thoroughbreds contesting a compelling race.
Until Arsenal’s second-half revival, Ferguson could not have been more pleased. His plan to steer the ball quickly towards the lone front-runner, Van Nistelrooy, brought rich reward midway through the half. When United broke from defence, the tireless, selfless Van Nistelrooy immediately showed for the ball, offering his team-mates an attractive outlet.
This was vintage Van Nistelrooy, the movement, touch and intelligence of the very highest order. Having received the ball, the Dutchman immediately laid it off to the swift-arriving Ryan Giggs. As Van Nistelrooy turned and sped forward, Giggs made ground and slid the ball through.
Still Arsenal should have cleared. But, to the horror of the North Bank, Campbell slipped and Van Nistelrooy was away. Still, United’s leading striker had much to do. Martin Keown was closing fast and Stuart Taylor, understudying for the cold-ridden David Seaman, was rushing out to spread himself in front of Van Nistelrooy.
But his 37th goal of the season was never in doubt. The ball seemingly mesmerised by Van Nistelrooy, the forward guided it into position before lifting it unerringly over the diving Taylor. Wheeling away in front of the North Bank, Van Nistelrooy was mobbed by his delighted team-mates.
On the bench, Ferguson was shouting his joy.
First blood to United. Until Henry found his elegant stride, Arsenal were struggling to lift the blue blanket spread by United. Robert Pires attempted to break through, darting down the left in that straight-backed, legs-pumping way of his. When Nicky Butt challenged him too eagerly, Pires fell to earth and looked up to find a glowering Ferguson, his face as red as Arsenal’s shirt, screaming at him and making mocking diving motions.
Pires’ ribald riposte will not be found in many French text-books in English schools. Henry moved up a gear, seemingly intent on dribbling the ball from the restart into Barthez’s goal. Yet, again, Ferguson’s players were sticking diligently to the game plan, namely smothering Henry whenever this magnificent athlete of a striker collected possession. Two, sometimes three of Ferguson’s men formed a quick-reacting ambush unit. But Henry is too irrepressible to be kept quiet for long.
Wenger’s men refused to lie down. Five minutes after the restart, Arsenal’s heightened tempo helped them level. Pires, so often the catalyst, cut in from the left and played the ball into the box. It clipped Dennis Bergkamp on the way through and fell to Cole. Alarms bells rang in United’s backyard.
The England left-back loves to join in attacking sorties, a reminder of his schoolboy days as a 100-goal-a-season striker on Wanstead Flats, East London. Cole worked the ball on to his right foot and his shot deflected off Henry as it flew through Barthez’s legs.
Then controversy. With Henry a yard offside, the Frenchman received a wonderful pass through the middle from Gilberto Silva. As United appealed vainly, Henry turned, raced through the gears and slipped the ball past the diving Barthez: one-nil down, 2-1 up. No wonder Arsenal fans were singing.
So was United’s response. Within a minute, they were level, drawing on their deep well of determination, working the ball wide and then in, devastatingly so. Solskjaer whipped in a cross that David Beckham would have admired and there was the unmarked Giggs to head home from five yards.
Arsenal: Taylor; Lauren, Keown, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira (Edu 33), Gilberto, Pires (Kanu 79); Bergkamp (Wiltord 74), Henry.
Manchester United: Barthez; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O’Shea (G. Neville 46); Solskjaer, Butt, Keane, Scholes; Giggs; Van Nistelrooy.
Referee: M Halsey.