It was another rivalry match this past weekend with Manchester United hosting Arsenal at Old Trafford. Although, it was a redemption opportunity for United, who were bested at home by Arsenal in the FA cup, much of the hype behind the match was diffused by Chelsea's title clinch earlier in the week. Nonetheless, both teams approached the game with the same care and preparation that a marquis match demands. Through victory, United could put some additional pressure on Arsenal for a third place finish, which guarantees Champions League group stage football, a great deal better than a fourth place finish, which only provides a playoff game against another European team to enter the Champions League.
Louis Van Gaal's hand was forced by injuries to Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw as he selected his starting XI. David De Gea was chosen to start in net, possibly his last start at Old Trafford as mystery continues to swirl about his future and possible transfer to Real Madrid. Antonio Valencia took up his adopted role at right back. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, wearing the armband, continued their partnership as the two centerbacks, while Marcos Rojo replaced Luke Shaw at left back. In midfield, Van Gaal stuck with his core midfield (Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata) still missing Michael Carrick and £59.7 million pounds record signing Ángel Di María. Radamel Falcao replaced Wayne Rooney as the lone striker in what would most likely be his final start at Old Trafford as a Red Devil.
United imposed their will over Arsenal throughout the match, dominating possession and dictating the tempo. High praises should be given to Ashley Young, Ander Herrera, and Daley Blind, who asserted themselves in midfield. Defensively, United seemed more than up to the task, besides a mix up between De Gea and Jones on a back pass and a lucky bit of defense by Jones after he tripped on an overhead ball.
United made the first breakthrough at the half hour mark with none other than Ashley Young and Ander Herrera as provider and scorer, respectively. Young played a dangerous back post cross that passed Arsenal's defenders overhead as they collapsed to the usual target man Fellaini. The Gunners' defensive lapse left Ander Herrera wide open with a volley opportunity. His scintillating strike beat the goalie at his near post, giving United the lead in the match.
United's elevated play continued throughout the remainder of the first half. Juan Mata and Radamel Falcao linked up on a cross to header that created some menace to the Arsenal net. Juan Mata's best contribution came on a free kick on the left side of the goal in the Arsenal defensive third. He and Daley Blind combined on a well-crafted and practiced set piece of the free kick that would have scored if it had not struck Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo on its journey to the goal frame. Replays clearly show that the ball was bound for the back of the net past the outstretched goalie and the goal chance coming in the 45th minute would have completely changed the landscape of the game as the teams went to the locker rooms for halftime.
In the second half, United continued their superiority with strong link up and wing play that lead to many chances that lacked that final clinical finishing touch or inspired pass. De Gea remained aware despite the lack of chances against. Olivier Giroud produced a wonderful first touch in the United 18 yard box to pivot away from the United defense, but his shot was unable to beat De Gea.
In the 74th minute, De Gea picked up a hip injury that he immediately recognized would keep him from being his best at the back. He left the field almost immediately, prompting Victor Valdés' first appearance at United. His debut would not proceed as desired as he surrendered a game-tying goal in the 82nd minute. Tyler Blackett attempted to block Theo Walcott's cross inside the box and the resulting deflection floated over a sprawling Valdés, who was already attempting to defend the cross. Arsenal and United were level, 1-1, and that is how the match concluded.
United and Van Gaal will certainly be disappointed by the result as they not only held Arsenal without a shot on goal for the first 50 minutes of the match, but also held the lead for 52 minutes in the match. The draw almost guarantees that they will finish in fourth, as Arsenal has two home matches left to play and lead United by two points already. It would truly be a noteworthy collapse should Arsenal fail to earn at least two points in their last two matches to allow United a chance at third place.
United's focus, especially Louis Van Gaal's, has moved towards next season and the summer transfer window. Memphis Depay passed his physical and thus, all that remains to guarantee his transfer is the final agreement between the teams to the transfer fee and the opening of the transfer window in June. Rumors have rekindled about Gareth Bale joining United as well, although his transfer fee, approximately £80 million pounds, almost certainly requires United to dispense with some players, rumored to be Van Persie and Di María. United's real transfer dilemma revolves around their player of the year, De Gea, who has yet to sign his extension or make certain knowledge his desire to transfer to Real Madrid. One thing is certain, however: this summer's transfer period will be most critical to United's success in coming years.
United finish their season this weekend on Championship Sunday. They play Hull City at 10:00AM on one of the channels owned by NBC to be announced later in the week.
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