There were just over seventeen minutes to play in this critical, top of the table Premier League match when the whistle blew for a penalty kick. Wayne Rooney picked the ball up and placed it on the spot. In front of the Stretford End, this was his moment, after everything, for redemption and the healing process to begin. He strode up, a long run-up, from an angle that looked improbable even from the disorientating camera angle that they use for penalty kicks these days, and… if Wayne Rooney wanted a visual metaphor for his 2010, there it was, right in front of him – a luminous yellow orb, sailing high and harmlessly over Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, into the dark mass of humanity behind it.
For all the hype and all the hubris that surrounds the Premier League, it should be said that, on match day at least, it usually delivers. This evening, however, was an off night and if Richard Scudamore happened to be somewhere in the world, trying to sell the league to The Tribe That Hides From Man or some other group of people that have previously not succumbed to the lavish pleasures of The Greatest League In The World tonight, he may have been anxiously reaching for the remote control within the first twenty minutes of this match. This was football played at the pace of a game of pinball, which from an early stage took the feel of a game that would be decided by one moment of beauty that would transcend the seemingly synchronised display of cancelling each other out that was otherwise taking place.
That moment came five minutes from half-time, and was a goal borne from a singular moment of improvised brilliance. Nani had a run at Gael Clichy on the right-hand side and his cross was deflected. Park Ji-sung, however, stooped, twisted, got his head around the ball, sending it agonisingly over Szczesny, off the far post and in. It was a goal of such unlikely, well, physics that one could almost have expected Alex Ferguson to have been holding a PS3 controller when the cameras cut to him, but it was a moment of rare distinction in an otherwise underwhelming first half of football. Moreover, it was a goal that, four minutes from half-time, more or less guaranteed Manchester United’s unbeaten record so far this season. This evening’s Arsenal team were never, in a month of Sundays, going to score twice against this Manchester United team in just over forty-five minues.
The second half maintained the taut, largely incident-free tempo of the first. Arsenal started strongly, but the best chance of the opening period feel at the other end of the pitch, to Nani, who, after Clichy had first robbed him of the ball and then stumbled and lost it back to him, shot well over from something of an angle, whilst Anderson’s shot was blocked by Szczesny. After Rooney’s chance from the spot, he still found the time for another chance to come close with a lob that forced Szczesny, at full strength, to tip just over the crossbar. Rooney’s performance was a sign that perhaps something is stirring back to life for him. The penalty, however, demonstrated that the demons that seem to have plagued him throughout 2010 haven’t quite vanished from his life just yet.
Although this wasn’t the finest match that we’ll see in the Premier League this season – it wasn’t even the finest match in the Premier League this weekend – there is still an inherently theatrical quality to any match between two clubs of this stature that is difficult to resist. Every tackle is treated by all concerned as a perceived slight. Every foul, no matter how innocuous, brings the crowd to its feet as if the opposing player has just made an attempt on their man’s life. There are some, no doubt, whose temples will throb with genuine outrage at this sort of occurrence, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the majority are treating it as it should be, as a modern pantomime, in which the crowd itself constructs a cast of heroes and villains. Pained shouts from thousands of people of, “Man on!”, for example, could very easily, in an alternate reality no so different from this one, be shouts of, “He’s behind you!”.
Perhaps the ultimate selling point of football is, however, that we don’t know how the plot will turn out. This sometimes means that the bad guys sometimes win, but it’s a trade-off that we make and this season, so far, the Premier League is pushing many of the right buttons for twists and turns to leave us on the edge of our seats. Every which way we look at it, the current league table feels almost nonsensical. Manchester United head it tonight and are unbeaten, but they have only won once away from Old Trafford. Both Arsenal and Chelsea have lost more matches than Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland. All of this could, and quite probably will, yet change. Manchester United are starting to show signs that they could take this year’s title at a canter, but there have already been points at which this season this has been said of Arsenal and Chelsea, whilst Manchester City, for all of the soap opera that continues to hang around their season like an albatross around their neck, continue to hang on in third place in the table, themselves just two points from the summit. Tonight itself may not have been beautiful, but the playing the long game seems to be the best way to enjoy this year’s Premier League at present.
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