Superhero movies are the rage these days. As multimillion dollar franchises like Marvel and DC try to outsmart each other with bigger and better ensemble casts and intriguing storylines, it is the movie-going audience which stands to benefit.
On Sunday, the final day of the Avengers: Infinity War debut weekend, as Arsene Wenger walked out on the Old Trafford pitch for one last time as the Arsenal manager to standing ovation from Manchester United supporters who have only displayed their vitriol for him over the last 22 years, the song befitting the occasion belonged to Ultron, one of Marvel’s iconic villains, “I had strings, but now I am free; there are no strings on me.”
Not only was the reception from the Manchester United fans a gracious one, but the felicitation from the club, as Sir Alex Ferguson presented Wenger with a memento, with a smiling Jose Mourinho looking on, was equally decorous.
“I am thankful to Manchester United because they had a nice gesture. It is the first time I get a trophy before a game. It is very classy from them,” Wenger offered after the game, jokingly adding, “When you’re not a danger any more, people love you.”
Gone are the days when Ferguson and Wenger would one up each other with their mindgames, gone are the days when Mourinho and Wenger delved into confrontations on the touchline, gone are the days when the result of this iconic Manchester United vs Arsenal fixture was consequential to the fate of the Premier League trophy.
A 2-1 win for the Red Devils courtesy goals from Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini on either side of a brilliant strike from Henrikh Mkhitaryan solidified the fact that Arsenal will finish the season at sixth (at best), their lowest ever league finish under Wenger’s tutelage, while Manchester United took a step closer to securing the runners-up position ahead of Liverpool.
The result seemed a foregone conclusion right from the kick-off, perhaps due to the public opinion surrounding Wenger and his trips to Old Trafford, discounting the oft-underrated fact that Arsenal had finished above Manchester United in the English Premier League for the last four consecutive seasons.
This season, however, has been abysmal by all standards for the North London club, who lost their sixth away league game on the trot, picking up the unenviable record of being the only club in England’s top four divisions to have not won an away game since the turn of the year.
The Gunners boss, prioritising their upcoming trip to Atletico Madrid, fielded Arsenal’s youngest line-up in six years, even handing Konstantinos Mavropanos his Premier League debut, and the young guns matched up to their far more experienced opponents on most aspects for majority of the 90 minutes. Manchester United did register 17 shots to Arsenal’s eight, but did not look infallible by any means, in spite of the vast differences in the experience and wage structure of the players of both clubs.
“A positive performance but a negative result,” Wenger opined following the match and rightly so – for Manchester United put in a professional shift, but unlike Arsenal, they did not set out to prove a point. The displays of Alexis Sanchez and Mkhitaryan, the two spectrums of the infamous January swap deal, was a testament to that. While Sanchez created Manchester United’s first goal with an excellent header that was buried by Pogba on the rebound, it was the Armenian who sizzled all through the game.
Mkhitaryan had started on the right flank for Arsenal, but constantly drifted inside, taking up a more central position in Arsenal’s attacking midfield, his movement flummoxing the United centre-backs Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling. It was one such run through the centre of the park in the 51st minute which allowed the 29-year-old to find acres of space just outside David de Gea’s defensive third and his pinpoint shot down the ground went through Lindelof’s legs, past De Gea’s reach to bring Arsenal back into the game.
And Arsenal did come back into the game, even coming close to nabbing a winner in the last half an hour, but staying true to their identity under Wenger this past decade, Arsenal eventually wilted – conceding a stoppage time goal to Fellaini. The Gunners had found it difficult to contend with Fellaini’s direct approach – after all, aerial threats have always been Arsenal’s Achilles' heel – and the Belgian rose above everyone to loop in a header deflected off Granit Xhaka’s head into the far top corner, once again marring the rose-tinted glasses with which Arsenal fans would have loved to remember Wenger with, on his ultimate trip to Old Trafford.
As a pensive Wenger looked on from the touchline, once again subjected to humiliating “We want you to stay” chants from Manchester United fans, while Fellaini (who is yet sign a new contract at Manchester United) celebrated with abandon, the song for the night appeared to have shifted embodiment from the 68-year-old Frenchman to the 30-year-old Belgian, “I've got no strings to hold me down; to make me fret or make me frown."
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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2018 11:11:00 IST