Granit Xhaka’s cracker caps Arsenal’s wild win over Manchester United | premier league

The game was in the balance, Manchester United pushing hard and threatening an equalizer for 2-2, Arsenal on their heels. Then, in an isolated raid forward by the home team, Granit Xhaka brought his left foot down like a sledgehammer and everything changed.

Bruno Fernandes had just missed a penalty for United. Now he was caught in possession on the edge of his own area by Mohamed Elneny and when the ball was worked to Xhaka 25 yards out the Arsenal midfielder had only one thing on his mind. The connection was sweet and the shot screamed past David de Gea.

It had been a fraught afternoon for Arsenal, one which Mikel Arteta described as a “rollercoaster”. But United were broken and it would be Arsenal who boosted their top four hopes. Their opponents, by contrast, are surely out of the race.

After all of the criticism in the wake of the 4-0 humbling at Liverpool last Tuesday, after the home truths from the interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, including the one about the squad needing open heart surgery, this was an improved United performance, at least at one end of the pitch.

United created a huge number of openings, with Diogo Dalot, the right-back, twice hitting the woodwork. The returning Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored their goal – his 100th in the Premier League – had another narrowly ruled out for offside, which Rangnick claimed was the wrong call by VAR. He was deeply unhappy at how the technology was used – or not used.

United’s frustration was total and it would overwhelm Fernandes in the 77th minute. He left his studs in late and spitefully on Nuno Tavares, who had opened the scoring early on, and he was fortunate to get away with a yellow card. It was the only thing that went right for him. Rangnick substituted him for his own good.

Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes sees his penalty strike a post before deflecting wide. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

Arsenal had been the firm favorites to seal their first Champions League qualification since 2016 but it felt as if their young team had been gripped by nerves. And yet Xhaka would bend the narrative to the force of his will and it was certainly a sight for sore eyes to see him blowing kisses to the Emirates crowd, with them returning the love.

Previously cast as a scapegoat, the relationship between him and them forever flawed – to paraphrase Xhaka – he had made himself the hero and Arsenal’s celebrations at full-time reflected the significance of the result. They had carried mental and physical fatigue into the game since last Wednesday’s win at Chelsea. They got over it. For United, the misery continues.

Rangnick had been forced into a defensive change after the bomb threat to Harry Maguire’s house, which is not a sentence anybody could ever have imagined reading but somehow reflects the fury and chaos around the club.

In came the fit-again Raphaël Varane and he was at fault for the opening goal although he was not the only one. He and Alex Telles missed attempted clearances in slapstick fashion after a Xhaka cross and, when Bukayo Saka saw De Gea push out his curling effort, Tavares pounced for his first Arsenal goal.

United were a shambles defensively, their last line all over the place. Eddie Nketiah was allowed in for a one-on-one chance which De Gea saved, but the goalkeeper would be beaten again shortly afterwards.

What a strange goal it was, Saka nudging an Emile Smith Rowe flick through for Nketiah and being body checked by Victor Lindelöf after the United centre-half was caught on the wrong side. Nketiah finished on this occasion but VAR called him back for offside. The technology then got to work on the Lindelof challenge. Penalty. Saka converted calmly.

It would have been easy for United to feel sorry for themselves because they had created a host of opportunities to equalize at 1-0 down. Anthony Elanga twice ran through but he could not finish, with Rangnick complaining that Tavares had manhandled him on the second occasion.

Scott McTominay wasted a headed chance; Fernandes could not unload a chip after Aaron Ramsdale surrendered possession; Ronaldo’s touch let him down on a high ball; and Dalot rattled the crossbar from 25 yards. There was also the moment when Jadon Sancho ran at Cédric Soares and appealed loudly for handball against the defender.

The first half was particularly wild. Arsenal were equally loose at the back, putting their fans through agonies as they tried and sometimes failed to play out. Ronaldo got in front of Gabriel too easily to convert a Nemanja Matic cross, and there was still time in the first half for De Gea to save from Elneny and Martin Ødegaard, and Ramsdale to beat away a Telles blast.

Paul Pogba, missing because of a calf injury and out of contract in the summer, tweeted during the interval that he hoped to return before the end of the season. “It’s not over, United we would stand,” he wrote, the conditional tense slightly weird.

The same could be said of Tavares’s decision to jump for a United corner with his arm outstretched, the ball hitting it for a penalty. The game had turned into an order for the left-back but he was reprieved when Fernandes stuttered, hopped and dragged the kick against the outside of a post.

United continued to push. McTominay worked Ramsdale, Ronaldo spun and lashed home only to be denied by the tightest of offside calls, and Dalot rattled a post. The equalizer felt as though it was coming. Xhaka had other ideas.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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