LONDON: Unlucky 13. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s magical run is over. Manchester United’s run of 12 unbeaten league games since his appointment 17 games ago just before Christmas ended in a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal. The Gunners thus overtook United to reclaim the all-important fourth spot in the Premier League.
In fact, although fourth place would usually be enough to earn a Champions League place next season this is not certain.
An odd combination of English victories in both Champions League and Europa League could mean that the club in fourth place will not join Europe’s elite next season: UEFA rules allow only a maximum of five clubs from one country in the Champions League.
Thus third place is what matters most to both Arsenal and United. This is now within reach for either after Tottenham slipped back towards the pack after their defeat at Southampton on Saturday.
Arsenal and United were back on domestic duty after contrasting fortunes in France in midweek. United had thrilled Europe with their victory of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League but Arsenal had lost 3-1 to Rennes in the Europa League.
Gunners’ manager Unai Emery had responded by demanding a “mood change” from his players who had been “too sad” after the defeat in France. He said: “I want players with positive energy.” That is what they duly gave him.
As for United, the injury crisis they had defied in Paris was again in evidence with the absences of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic in midfield as well as Jessie Lingard and Alexis Sanchez in attack.
Interim manager Solskjaer had demonstrated in midweek that he is never afraid to changes tactics during a game and he did that again in north London. The prompt was a 12th-minute free kick from Granit Xhaka which swerved past a surprised David de Gea. That was a costly rare error by the Spanish goalkeeper.
Solskjaer responded by switching to 3-4-1-2 which matched Arsenal’s formation in which Mesut Ozil was back as playmaker with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front.
The Norwegian’s judgment should have been rewarded in the 37th minute. Instead Arsenal keeper Bernd Leno saved bravely at the feet of the onrushing Romelu Lukaku and Arsenal survived.
United’s increase of the pressure led to Sokratis being shown a yellow card by referee Jon Moss for a mistimed challenge on Paul Pogba. Sokratis had been shown red in the midweek defeat by Rennes in the Europa League.
Not until the 42nd minute did United win their first corner and then Aubameyang headed out, Aaron Ramsey raced clear and it took only a narrow offside flag against Ozil to halt a dangerous counter-attack.
Brazilian midfielder Fred had been denied a first-half goal by the posts and he then played an unluckily unfortunate role when Arsenal increased their lead in the second half. Fred was judged to have fouled Lacazette and Aubameyang converted the penalty with his 17th goal in the Premier League and 21st in all competitions.
Solskjaer’s remarkable run was thus brought to an end. He had replaced Jose Mourinho in the expectation of merely seeing out the season before United appointed Mauricio Pochettino or Max Allegri or Zinedine Zidane. Instead Solskjaer remains favourite. It all depends, most probably, on whether they qualify for a Champion League return.
** Liverpool confront FC Bayern confident in the form and goal-greed of their strike force and in their self-confidence by coming from behind to defeat Burnley 4-2.
Questions had been asked about the character of Jurgen Klopp’s team after a run of four draws in six league matches cost them lose their lead at the top of the Premier League.
But one continuing problem for Klopp is finding goals from elsewhere than attack. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane scored two each at Anfield and, with Mohamed Salah, boast 44 Premier goals between them. Midfielders have contributed only six of their 68.
Firmino has scored 10 or more league goals in all four of his seasons at Liverpool and has been directly involved in 100 goals in 175 appearances for Liverpool under Klopp (63 goals, 37 assists), more than any other player in that time.
Burnley had taken a surprise sixth-minute lead direct from a corner by Ashley Barnes when keeper Alisson was bundled aside in the goalmouth melee. Later they pulled the scoreline back briefly to 3-2 through Johann Berg Gudmundsson but the ultimate outcome was that Liverpool remain one point behind Manchester City with eight games remaining.
Klopp, not enjoying the windy weather in north-west England or Burnley’s physical style, said: “Are we allowed to talk about the conditions? The first Burnley goal was maybe a little bit of the wind. In most countries it would not be allowed that goal – you cannot treat the goalie like that in the six-yard box.
“But I’m completely happy with the performance – especially against Burnley. Nobody gets rid of us.”
** Eden Hazard proved his value again with the stoppage-time goal which rescued a point in Chelsea’s 1:1 home draw against Wolves. Earlier Raul Jimenez had put Wolves ahead with their only shot on goal. Chelsea’s 13-goal top scorer had been restored to the starting line-up after sitting out the midweek Europa League win over Dynamo Kiev. Hazard’s consistent brilliance in an erratic club season underlines Real Madrid’s interest.
** Midfielder Jack Grealish was attacked by a spectator who ran on to the pitch in the 10th minute of Aston Villa’s second division derby win over Birmingham City. The man was detained by stewards after aiming a punch at the Villa captain. Grealish was helped up by players from both teams and not only played on but scored the 67th-minute winning goal.