x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ferguson spreads his wings

Park and Nani were not just the horses for courses at the Emirates, but could become a potent double act.

By their own admission, Arsenal were not at the races. Manchester United certainly were, the combination of the thoroughbred, the workhorse and the showpony proving overwhelming. Sunday's 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium was notable for many things, not least the continued brilliance of Wayne Rooney, who scored his 20th league goal of the season, and the similarities with United's triumph by the same scoreline at the same ground in the Champions League in May; indeed Rooney's goal was as superb a piece of counter-attacking as the second of Cristiano Ronaldo's brace was then.

Yet if Rooney's excellence is taken for granted, the same cannot be said of his accomplices in attack. Flanking the Englishman were Ji-sung Park and Nani. By no standards had either enjoyed a fine season - indeed Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia are comfortably United's premier wingers over the course of the entire campaign -but both contributed a goal, even if Nani's effort has been debited to Manuel Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, instead.

Both were bold selections by Sir Alex Ferguson; yet they are polar opposites among wingers. They are a breed who tend to be unpredictable, while young players are often inconsistent. The erratic but eminently able Nani has proved both, while Park's dependability had been a downfall: he has been too humdrum for supporters who crave excitement from attackers. Both had fallen out of favour; Park only starting five league games before Hull's visit to Old Trafford and Nani only appearing in one of the previous 14 matches in all competitions. He is thought to have been offered as a makeweight in a bid to sign Angel Di Maria, the Argentine prodigy. Certainly it seemed that Ferguson was tiring of his most mercurial performer.

His return from internal exile has not been fully explained, but it has been justified. Nani has long had the raw materials, the turn of pace, flamboyant skills and an eye for goal, of a young Ronaldo without developing at the remarkable rate his compatriot did. Sunday's showing, where he conspicuously outpaced one of the Premier League's fastest and most accomplished full-backs in Gael Clichy, felt like a coming-of-age performance. Both Ferguson and Nani himself described it as the 23-year-old's finest in a United shirt.

If he has had difficulties adjusting to life after Ronaldo, Park has taken more time than most. The 28-year-old figured far more frequently before his sale, his selection seeming to make sense in a kind of unofficial agreement: the Korean did the defending the Portuguese sometimes neglected, the younger man scored the goals the older one rarely provided. It is why his future may depend in part on Nani's form.

Yet Ferguson has long felt that Park was a big-game player. It is significant that, of a comparati-vely meagre total of 13 United goals, three have come against Arsenal. Especially away from home, he is a regular sight in the biggest games. Before an undistinguished 18 months, it is worth remembering that Nani, too, displayed a temperament on the major stage. In his debut season at Old Trafford, he scored against Arsenal and Liverpool, while his final kick of the ball was a penalty he converted in Moscow when a miss would have handed the Champions League to Chelsea. It took him a year and a half to regain such momentum in his United career. But in a season when a sizeable squad have been heavily dependent upon a handful of players, his performance could prove to be more significant that Rooney's. The combination of Nani and Park gives an alternative to Valencia and Giggs, which is essential given the latter's age. The prospect of alternative match-winners may just be a sign that the considerable burden on Rooney is easing.

Devastating and decisive as Arsenal's defeat was, it is worth remembering that they were holding Manchester United until Nani's cross was tipped into his own net by Manuel Almunia. Arsene Wenger's parsimony in the transfer market is often admirable, but titles tend to be won by clubs with top-class keepers and that description does not apply to Arsenal. The 19-year-old Wojciech Szczesny may be the long-term solution, but with, say, Shay Given at the Emirates Stadium, the league table could have had a very different look.

In the four-way battle for fourth place, one mistake can make a huge difference. One at either end certainly does. Tottenham's concession of an injury-time equaliser to Birmingham's Liam Ridgewell on Saturday was a second costly moment in added time in a couple of months: in December, Jermain Defoe missed a penalty against Everton. A match that would have otherwise ended 3-2 stayed 2-2. Those two incidents are the difference between a five-point cushion and a very even contest for fourth.

Officially the most out-of-form team in the Premier League are one who, before then, were a byword for quiet success. Fulham have lost five successive games. As those matches include three away games, contests with Chelsea, Tottenham and Aston Villa and have come at a time when Roy Hodgson's squad has been decimated by injury, it shows how easy it is to lose five in a row. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae