A 1:0 home win was crucial, but far from enough to guarantee United a berth in the final in Rome. Can the Gunners turn it around in the second leg at home?
On paper, a one-goal gap is not unbridgeable for Arsenal, especially when they will be playing at Emirates Stadium. But if you watched the game last night, you would be inclined to bet your every penny on United's going through.
The “Red Devils” deserved better than a 1:0 win. It was Almunia, with two world-class saves, among countless other stops in the first half, who kept Arsenal in the match.
United pressed high from the first whistle, foiling the Gunners' attempts at passing from the back. Rooney almost scored within 60 seconds in United's first attack. Tevez should have scored on 15 minutes before O'Shea struck the winner from the ensuing corner kick.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who has occasionally been accused of anonymity in big games, was a livewire throughout the night. He hit the crossbar with a thunderbolt, but will be disappointed with a first-half headed miss.
The young Gunners struggled to find their rhythm all night. But Wenger's decision to play Fabregas in the hole behind the attack cost the game.
The “Professor's” experiment of playing the captain in a deeper position achieved good results when Fabregas scored twice in their 2:0 win against Middlesbrough last week. It’s a fact that this adjustment in formation has revitalized the Spanish's scoring ability, but with Nasri and Song behind him, the Gunners lost control in the central midfield.
Besides, the in-form Walcott, for reasons not apparent to the watching public, was a spectator for large parts of the game as he stood out wide, in space, ready to roll, but without the ball.
All this combination of factors achieved nothing but to remove any pressure on the United defense.
The Gunners will not have much to do to improve in the second leg. Playing a 4-4-2 formation to let Van Persie play alongside Adebayor is a must for a side which desperately needs to score to overturn the deficit. But a breakaway goal from United will definitely kill the game, and with the current defense – Gibbs, Silvestre, Toure and Sagna from left to right – it seems highly possible.
The young guns can be thankful that United weren't more precise in front of goal and that a couple of marginal offside calls went their way. They are a promising team, perhaps more talented than the finalists of 2006, but they need more experience and strength and strategy before they can rival a side like the United.
(China.org.cn by Xiang Bin, April 30, 2009)