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Manchester United came into this game against Arsenal on the back of a historic European night. A performance of a lifetime from Ole’s players in Paris ensured that the great club from Manchester qualified to the Quarter Finals of the Champions League for the first time in 5 years. But this game, away at Arsenal, was equally important if the Red Devils wanted to play amongst the European elites next season in the race for Top Four.
The game started with the home team applying early pressure and a delightful cross from Kolasinac in the second minute almost found Lacazzete in the center. Despite Arsenal enjoying a lion’s share of possession, it was United who got the best opportunity of the game so far when Luke Shaw, after some delightful interchange with Paul Pogba, curled in a sublime cross and found Lukaku. The Belgian, who has been in sensational form himself, beat Leno but found the bar from close range and Arsenal were let off the hook.
The Londoners capitalized on this miss and went on to score at the other end via Granit Xhaka. The much-maligned Arsenal midfielder took a speculative shot from 25 yards out but the strong winds took the ball away from David De Gea, who was left bamboozled by this sudden change in the flight of the ball. Manchester United did attack Arsenal instantly and hit the post again, this time with a fierce shot from Fred who aimed to build on an excellent performance against PSG.
Towards the end of the first half, Manchester United did pull one of the moves of the season when a lovely combination play between Rashford, Shaw, and Pogba left Pogba in space and the Frenchman, with his weaker foot, played a gorgeous cross-field ball to Lukaku on the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area. Surprisingly, the Belgian killed it with an enchanting first touch and played in Diogo Dalot. The move fizzled out when Marcus Rashford failed to get his shot away from the Portuguese’s cutback and with it, went the referee’s whistle for half time.
United started brightly in the second half as well and inside the first 10 minutes, Romelu Lukaku was brilliantly denied twice by Leno. The pressure was mounting on Arsenal and it felt like a United goal was just a matter of time. But just then, Jonathan Moss happened. The referee gifted a soft penalty to Arsenal after Fred had hardly made any contact with Alexandre Lacazzete inside the box. It is the decisions like this that makes sense now as to why FIFA decided not to have any English referees at the World Cup last summer. VAR really can’t come any sooner to the Premier League.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the striker who had missed a last-minute penalty in the North London Derby last week, redeemed himself as he rolled it past De Gea and gave Arsenal a 2-0 lead. United attacked again but without any venom and with 5 minutes left to play, Rashford did have a simplest of headers but his shot was straight at Leno.
Rashford, much like his last two outings in a United shirt, was quite frustrating. He has missed several key chances in the past 3 games and his overall play and decision making has let the team down. The young forward has played a lot of minutes under Solskjaer and probably needs a rest, both mentally and physically, to get back to his best of forms.
One player who really caught the eye was Fred. The Brazilian had a good game in Paris but he was United’s man of the match at the Emirates. He started slowly but grew into the match and started winning tackles and duels. His passing was also accurate and on any other day, he could have had his goal as well.
With this defeat, Arsenal leapfrog Manchester United into the 4th position but the race for Champions League spots is far from over yet. With Spurs’ defeat at St. Mary’s, this has become a 4 horse race for two positions. Given that Arsenal have a questionable away record where they have won just one away game since November and Chelsea dropped more points at home to Wolves, Manchester United, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have their destiny in their own hands and a chance at a strong finish this season, with even the possibilities of Cup triumphs. This could make it a memorable year for the United supporters. Now all our eyes are fixed on the two cup competitions as the UEFA Champions League draw will take place at noon on Friday and will travel to Wolves on Saturday for a difficult FA Cup Quarter Final tie.