Arsenal still excel at disappointing
After 69 days entombed in the bowels of the Earth, the Chilean miners deserved better.
Manchester United-Arsenal should and could have been the match of the season. Instead, it was dreary and will be quickly forgotten. If this is the best the Premier League has to offer, then Barcelona and other powers in Europe need not fret too much about meeting English opponents in the Champions League.
Thankfully, ''los 23'' still seemed to enjoy their star turn at Old Trafford on Monday night. Having dined the previous day with the most famous miner's son in Manchester, United and England hero Bobby Charlton, they unfurled the Chilean flag and waved to the crowd. It was a sight far more inspiring than the football on show, with the exception, perhaps, of Park Ji-sung's ingenious winning header.
When they were still trapped in their copper and gold mine, shivering through United's anticlimactic 1-0 victory over Arsenal cannot have topped the miners' lists of ''things I want to do if I ever get out of here.''
The number-crunchers at stats firm Opta counted 53 stray passes in the final third of the pitch in the first half. Barca-like ballet this was not. Based on this unimpressive showing, Pep Guardiola's astounding team will barely feel a bump in rolling over Arsenal should it get the north London underachievers in Friday's draw for the Champions League last 16.
United presents a far sterner, maybe insurmountable, obstacle for the Italian, French and Danish sides it could draw. His week training with sponsor Nike in Portland, Oregon, clearly did Wayne Rooney the power of good. He looks fitter than he has done for months. His overzealous, wayward penalty kick high over Arsenal's bar was a sign that Rooney is chomping at the bit to score. Too much impatience, not enough application. With time, the goals will return.
United's next Premier League opponent, Chelsea, will be a more illuminating test of whether Alex Ferguson's team is, as he insists, finally hitting its stride. For United, a win would allow it to charge toward 2011 as the team to catch. No side has so far managed to pull away at the top of the Premier League. United will be difficult to stop if it can do so.
For Chelsea, losing on Sunday would be a severe blow. It has been so uncharacteristically vulnerable of late that AC Milan and even the likes of Lyon, Inter Milan, Valencia and Roma will sense an opportunity if the Champions League draw sends the English champions their way.
The last of the four English teams in Friday's draw is swashbuckling Tottenham. As long as it continues to score more goals than it leaks, it will be a handful when the Champions League resumes in February, with quick winger Gareth Bale a delight to watch.
After five years barren of trophies, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger doesn't leave home without an excuse tucked inside his tailored sleeves. The Frenchman can no longer credibly blame youth and inexperience, because he has been building his squad for what seems, and is now, an age. So, on Monday night, he fingered Old Trafford's slippery but still fine playing surface.
''Very bad,'' he grumbled of the lawn that green-fingered gardeners would swap their favorite tool belt for. ''That's why, on both sides, you have seen unusual technical mistakes.''
The pretext wasn't convincing.
Nor is his team.
Because Wenger has insisted on hot-housing young talent, instead of buying largely polished players, Arsenal has long been talked about as a work in progress. But the progress isn't easy to spot.
Arsenal's passing game and skills on the ball are rightly lauded. But, often, Wenger's players leave you shouting ''shoot!'' Simply take a shot on goal instead of intricately trying to dribble and weave the ball into the back of the net! With midfielder Cesc Fabregas' sore hamstring keeping him benched for most of the match, Arsenal didn't really look like it would cancel out Park's goal, let alone win.
Arsenal's defense remains too soft-centered to build a winning campaign on. That is an old problem that Wenger didn't fix with his offseason buys of center-backs Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, from Sevilla and Lorient, respectively.
At 25, Koscielny still has time to prove that he can become a big-game player. Squillaci, at 30, doesn't have that excuse. He's not the solid, reassuring presence at the back and leader that William Gallas used to be - qualities that the former Arsenal captain rubbed in his old team's face when he led his new team, Tottenham, in its 3-2 defeat of the Gunners in the Premier League on Nov. 20.
That was Tottenham's first away win over its fierce north London rival in 17 years, and a game which would have been worthier for the brave men who nearly died underground.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org