LONDON – Wayne Rooney’s glass was half-full.
“If we beat Arsenal, we’re right back in the title race,” said the Manchester United striker ahead of Sunday’s summit meeting with the Premier League leaders at Old Trafford. With a United victory, the gap between the clubs would be five points. Game on.
What Rooney didn’t say is that if United loses it will trail the Gunners by 11 points, effectively four wins. Game over.
The champions’ results, if not their form, are improving, but Sunday will tell the jury where they stand with David Moyes’ United.
Recent results at Old Trafford between the teams favor a home win. The Gunners have lost the last four straight, including an 8-2 thrashing two seasons ago — they have won only one of their last 11 league visits, conceding 21 goals.
Arsenal doubters also point out it has yet to meet any of last season’s fellow top four teams in the Premier League this season, having failed to win any of the six games against them last season.
Yet Arsenal is playing some breathtaking football at the moment, beating Liverpool 2-0 with expansive, attacking flair no other English side is capable of and following it up with a solid, professional grind-it-out 1-0 victory at Borussia Dortmund.
Winning ugly is not really in Arsene Wenger’s DNA, but Arsenal is combining beauty with a little beast these days, the pretty with the pragmatic.
Bacara Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Nigel Gibbs are becoming an effective defensive unit while the arrival of Mesut Özil and the return of Mathieu Flamini have given Arsenal midfield magic and muscle, but the Gunners’ outstanding performer has been Aaron Ramsey, probably the most improved player in Europe.
Before this season the midfielder had scored 11 goals in 150 games, this season he’s scored 11 in 17.
Victory on Sunday would mean Arsenal posting its best ever start to a Premier League season with 28 points from 11 matches. Not bad for a team written off after its opening home defeat to Aston Villa.
WHEN THEY enter the world of professional football, players want to reach the top of their profession, win trophies and play for their country. Ashley Young has achieved all this, playing for Manchester United, helping them to the Premier League title last season and winning 30 England caps.
Yet Young is now branded the worst diver in English football, a player who only needs a fingernail brushed to tumble over in an attempt to win a penalty and possibly get an opponent sent off.
This is not an image associated with United over the years and both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes have warned the striker not to hit the deck at every opportunity. Their words have been less effective than Young’s penalty area theatrics.
Young may genuinely believe he did not dive, that he did not exaggerate his falling action after the slightest contact by Real Sociedad defender Markel Bergara to deceive the referee in last Tuesday’s Champions League game. If he does think he did nothing wrong, he is in a minority of two.
Remarkably and sadly, Moyes defending the indefensible, claimed “the boy tugs him in the box.”
Yes, there was some contact, it happens in football, and if any contact at all is the yardstick for a stumble and a penalty then referee Nicola Rizzoli was justified in pointing to the spot.
But Young somehow stayed on his feet for a couple of steps before seemingly remembering he should fall over. A tug with a belated effect, then.
When United fans take to Twitter to condemn one of their players you know he is guilty as charged, whatever the manager says.
“Dive Hard 2” was the headline on a mock-up movie poster of Young. Earlier this season when a national newspaper wanted to interview Young the subject of diving was banned, the interview subsequently canceled.
That Robin van Persie missed the resulting penalty against Sociedad is irrelevant. Young is a serial diver and a cheat in the eyes of virtually everyone. It is a tag he will carry for the rest of his career, having almost perfected the darkest of football’s dark arts.
It is easy to blame Rizzoli for falling for Young’s acting, but the Italian should not have had a decision to make. No dive, no decision, no penalty.
The suspicion is that on Sunday Young will have to be the victim of the most blatant red card-scything tackle to win a penalty.
ONE OF Sven-Goran Eriksson’s famous lines during his time as England manager was (I paraphrase): “What happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom.”
Another was: “First half good, second half not so good.”
These quotes are in no way related — I hope — but the Swede, who refused to comment on his private life because it was no one else’s business has now revealed all, thankfully not literally. His autobiography is full of details of his conquests, plus some football and a liberal sprinkling of hypocrisy.
Eriksson was a decent football manager, but his success with ladies is world class, it would seem. Some believe he has the personality of a lamp post, yet he (or his ghost writer) has a turn of phrase that makes us laugh when laughter was probably not intended.
Eriksson says of long-term partner Nancy Dell’Ollio: “She was irresistible at first” — at first, what a put down — while Ulrika Jonsson was “very nice to talk to” though conversation did not appear top of the priorities.
When Ms. Dell’Ollio’s mother read about Eriksson’s affair with Jonsson she phoned him to ask if it was true. He told her that “it was nothing to worry about or get upset about or something to that effect.”
A true romantic, our Sven.
Then there is this gem about a girl whose name Eriksson has probably forgotten.
“She had not said anything about being married, but suddenly the door opened and there was a big man. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he said. I said: ‘I think it is probably best if I leave,’ and he replied: ‘I think it probably is.’ ” Eriksson was always good at snap decisions.
My main memory of Eriksson is more mundane. It is of sitting next to him on a plane and remarking to him: “You must get a lot of air miles.”
“Yes,” he said. “And I reply to as many as I can.”
JOE HART is England’s best goalkeeper, but he is not the best goalkeeper at Manchester City at the moment. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has replaced Hart with Costel Pantilimon who is not even Romania’s best ‘keeper, winning his last cap in March.
It presents a problem for England manager Roy Hodgson, who will want to play Hart in the prestige friendly against Germany a week from Tuesday.
Hart would only have gone just over three weeks without a club game which is no major problem, but if Pantilimon retains his place in the City side it will become a serious dilemma for Hodgson as the World Cup final approach.
Could he continue to select a goalkeeper who is not playing regular club football?
Pantilimon was in goal last Tuesday as City defeated CSKA Moscow 5-2 to secure its place in the Champions League knockout stages for the first time. It did it with a side containing not a single British player and managed by a Chilean.
City fans do not care, nor do they mind that the most prolific partnership in the Premier League is Aguero (Argentina) and Negredo (Spain) with 22 goals in 28 matches.
Points are more important than passports.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph..