Danny Welbeck struck a priceless late winner over Arsenal, as United survived another taxing trip to the Emirates Stadium to stay firmly in the hunt for the Barclays Premier League title.
The Reds deservedly led at the interval as Antonio Valencia headed home Ryan Giggs’ excellent cross in first-half injury-time, but the Gunners rallied after the break and looked set to take a share of the spoils when Robin van Persie squeezed home a leveller with 19 minutes remaining.
United hit back, however, and re-took the lead when Valencia capped a storming individual run by setting up Welbeck to power home a finish and keep the champions right on Manchester City’s coat-tails at the head of the table.
The day began in disappointing fashion for the Reds after the Blues’ dramatic win over Tottenham, yet ended on a high despite the news that Rio Ferdinand was missing from the champions’ ranks with a back injury. That blow was softened by the return of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans. Evans lined up alongside Chris Smalling in the centre of defence, while Jones came in at right-back and Rafael dropped to the Reds’ bench.
Arsenal were able to welcome back Thomas Vermaelen from injury; bringing a welcome dose of steel to a Gunners backline keen to shore up after back-to-back defeats at Fulham and Swansea.
Manchester City’s last-gasp victory over Tottenham ramped up the pressure on the champions ahead of kick-off, and it was the hosts who had the first sniff of goal when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pinched possession from Jones, but could only pull his cross into a cluster of United defenders.
Neither side played with their usual fluidity or efficiency in possession, while the only efforts of the first 10 minutes were daisy-cutters from Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott which drew routine stops from Lindegaard.
The stop-start nature of the game continued when Jones twisted his left ankle after quarter of an hour. The right-back was stretchered from the field in obvious discomfort, with Rafael brought on as his replacement. The Brazilian’s introduction coincided with United’s growing control of proceedings.
A succession of corners almost yielded chances, with Smalling just failing to connect with Nani’s cross before Giggs found space aplenty behind Vermaelen, but no targets to pick out thereafter. Danny Welbeck then ploughed into the same defensive chasm after a neat one-two with Valencia, but could only blaze over, under pressure from Laurent Koscielny.
As the half wore on, United’s menace grew. Evra and Nani were an increasingly potent threat down the left flank, and they combined to force Wojciech Szczeny into action for the first time; the Portuguese drawing a smart, near-post stop after good approach work from the Frenchman.
The visitors knocked on the hosts’ door with increasing regularity and impatience. Rooney did well to cushion Giggs’ clipped pass inside the Gunners’ area before tumbling under pressure from Alex Song. Referee Mike Dean declined to award a penalty, and Rooney’s ire was hardly soothed when, moments later, Nani wastefully slid the ball well off-target instead of looking to pick out his unmarked number 10.
In first half injury-time, Giggs made the fullest use of United’s next opening. The veteran Welshman, having meandered back into old habits on the left flank, exploited Johann Djourou’s reluctance to pressure him by curling in a magnificent cross. At the far post, Valencia stole in behind Vermaelen to power a header across Szczesny and into the bottom corner.
The Ecuadorian’s strike inevitably stemmed from the Reds’ left flank, with the Gunners’ right side increasingly porous as the half wore on. Arsene Wenger’s attempt to plug the leak involved removing Djourou at half-time and introducing rookie right-back Nicholas Yennaris for his first Premier League start.
The Gunners almost drew level within five minutes of the restart, albeit by accident rather than design. Smalling slipped in possession midway inside his own half, giving Tomas Rosicky a clear route to goal. The Czech midfielder squared for van Persie, who shimmied away from the covering challenge of Evans before inexplicably and uncharacteristically blazing wide.
Nevertheless, buoyed by the chink in United’s armour, Arsenal rallied. Ramsey blasted over from inside the area and Rosicky’s shot thudded against Evra’s elbow and away to safety. Those opportunities flanked an arguably better opening for Valencia, who drilled well wide, but the opening exchanges of the second half could certainly be marked in the hosts’ favour.
It took another brush with parity to shock United into life. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot inched just wide of Lindegaard’s upright, but the champions soon his back. Evra was harshly adjudged offside after a neat interchange with Nani, then Per Mertesacker dramatically slid the ball off his own line after Welbeck had lifted a deft shot over the onrushing Szczesny.
United’s pursuit of a killer second goal would prove costly, however. When a surging run from Rafael was clinically halted by Koscielny inside the Arsenal area, the Brazilian’s absence was exposed by a quick Gunners counter-attack. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s slide-rule pass gave van Persie an opening, and he fired through Evans’ legs and past Lindegaard, via the inside of the Dane’s post.
Arsenal’s dander was predictably up, but the flow of the game was quickly stemmed when play was stopped for an injury to Walcott. Sir Alex Ferguson introduced Paul Scholes and Ji-sung Park for Nani and Rafael, and sent Valencia to right-back. The move didn’t curb the Ecuadorian’s attacking intent, however, and he played a key role as United regained the lead.
Valencia picked up Scholes’ spread pass, made a beeline for the hosts’ area and bypassed three players before swapping passes with Park. Before he could be crowded out, the winger teed up Welbeck for an emphatic finish past Szczesny; sparking wild scenes of celebration in the away end.
Thereafter, the game ended in the same stop-start fashion that it began, albeit with more bookings. United were able to see out five added minutes with only one real flirtation with danger, when Mertesacker’s goalbound header was chested to safety by Evans.
A victorious start to another taxing run of high-profile fixtures for the Reds sent out a clear message: the champions are in no mood to relinquish their crown.
Glory Glory ManUnited!