It was to be one of Arsenal’s best opportunity as, just as suddenly, there was a bad clearance by the Arsenal defense and United were all over it. Juan Veron ran onto the goal, into the 6-yard box, and tapped in, giving United a 1-nil lead it would not relinquish en route to a 2-0 victory.
To that point, the game had the makings of an unfolding classic. Even the most ardent United faithful at Old Trafford knew Arsenal could be expected to respond.
At the first half, United went in a deserved 1-nil ahead, but deserving to win and winning are two different things. The territorial advantage United players had carved out had required a lot of work. The question at halftime was, Could their pressure continue for 90 minutes at such a quick pace?
Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira had not been getting on the ball for the Gunners. Martin Keown looked unsteady as Ruud Van Nisterlrooy continued to bother the central defender. It was all United and it was Veron who ran the show. His partner in the middle, Paul Scholes, was also having a blinder. Vieira was getting closed down and he looked uncomfortable under pressure. Even Veron was winning balls and tackles. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was causing concern out wide as Arsenal was unable to pin him down.
With 20 minutes remaining, the game was becoming dead. A worried Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was finally making noise on the sideline. From a United throw-in, Scholes found himself running into Arsenal’s box. He was through on goal, it’s over, 2-nil.
So, Saturday’s game was no classic, but United’s performance was brilliant and, what’s more, Arsenal seemed frightened of the Red Devils. United’s tackling was ferocious. Veron sent a clear message that he is a big-game player. Solskjaer unbalanced the Gunners’ defense with his flicks and swerves around his marker. Phillip Neville won balls right, left and center. Young Irish international John O’Shea was impenetrable on the left side of the defense.
Even Ryan Giggs on an off day was a handful for Arsenal. Many good things came out of the game for the United players after Ferguson’s recent wake-up call behind the Manchester City defeat.
It’s no surprise United beat Arsenal at Old Trafford, but making Arsenal look ordinary was unexpected. Sublime skills were not present for Arsenal’s Pires and Henri, in particular. United looked comfortable at the back, at least more comfortable than in past games. Wes Brown played a steady roll, while Barthez made a couple of outstanding saves.
The key player, however, was United’s John O’Shea of Waterford. Is yet another great Irish defender in the making at Old Trafford?
After O’Shea won the Under 16 European Championship with the Republic of Ireland in 1998, it was no surprise when he moved to Manchester to play for United that summer. He was 18 when he signed for United. Now at 21, he has already signed a new contract for the Red Devils. The imposing teenager made an immediate impact at the Theater of Dreams. His own dream to play first team football for United may well have surfaced in last weekend’s game versus Arsenal. The big 6-foot-3 defender played on the left-hand side of United’s defense and he was outstanding. His gigantic run onto Arsenal’s back line, then knocking the ball back for Paul Scholes, showed just how athletic and elegant O’Shea really is. He was like a big dinosaur among his opponents.
Not only did O’Shea close down players and space, his skill and creativity threatened Arsenal’s defense constantly. He read the game like a book. At 21, it is early days to be putting O’Shea up there with the best, but his performance last weekend was unquestionably the arrival of his potential to be a great.
All the signs are there that Ireland has another fantastic defender. There is no doubt that United outclassed Arsenal.
In 1998-99, O’Shea made his debut for United in the Worthington Cup, losing 3-0 to Aston Villa. Four months later, he was loaned out to Bournemouth in the second division. The Irish defender could not emerge from the shadows of his more illustrious colleagues at Old Trafford; he needed first-team football. He played for two months at Bournemouth and received rave reviews. He scored his first-ever goal in a 3-1 loss at Millwall. Upon another return to Old Trafford, he looked set to establish himself but could manage only to feature in the League Cup in the 2000-01 season. The Fergie fledgling flew to Belgium, like many a young player at United, where he played for Royal Antwerp on loan.
Things were not going according to plan when O’Shea caused the ball to go into his own net for Ireland against Croatia in his international debut. But this time last year O’Shea broke through the starting lineup for United when he proved his worth again West Ham United. Rio Ferdinand and Laurent Blanc look to make their way back into the defense as they watched O’Shea hatch last Saturday. Will Fergie go with experience or will he stick with his Irish fledgling on the brink of maturity?