Arsenal slip could prove costly as Man City and Chelsea lurk
Gunners lucky to scrape a point at St Mary's as Mata makes a mark on Man United debut
HAS Arsenal's luck finally changed? Having spent the last few weeks doggedly hanging onto top spot in the Premier League with the breath of Man City and Chelsea on their necks, the Gunners stumbled as they drew with Southampton in what could be a crucial moment in the tightest title race for years.
Manager Arsene Wenger admitted his side struggled to get out of "second gear" at St Mary's, where they were held to a 2-2 draw by the Saints and, but for a brilliant double save late on from Wojciech Szczesny, could even have tasted defeat for the first time this year.
"We played in second gear and Southampton in fourth," said Wenger, at the end of a thrilling contest that ended the Gunners' seven-game winning streak. "They played at a higher pace than us, decided to stop us from playing and did it very well."
Southampton took the lead on 21 minutes when Jose Fonte headed in Luke Shaw's cross but Arsenal struck back early in the second half with goals from Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla in the space of five minutes. The Saints' response was swift, as Adam Lallana latched onto a pass from Jay Rodriguez to level the scores on 54 minutes.
That's how it remained although there was still plenty of drama to come at St Mary's. First Arsenal midfielder Mathieu Flamini was sent off for a two-footed challenge on Morgan Schneiderlin on 80 minutes, and then Szczesny denied Luke Shaw and Fonte to earn Arsenal a precious point.
"Flamini got the ball," declared Wenger when asked about the red card, and went on to defend his player against the charge that he went in two-footed. "If you say was it a violent tackle I would say no as he played the ball."
The draw means Arsenal stay top, but they could be down in third by tomorrow morning. The Gunners are now just two points clear of Manchester City, who play Tottenham tonight, and three ahead of Chelsea, who will have a better goal difference if they beat West Ham.
If they do slip behind City and Chelsea, Arsenal may start to feel like the pacesetters in a long distance race as the favourites make their move.
Juan Mata enjoyed a winning debut for Manchester United as they cruised to a 2-0 win over bottom-placed Cardiff City. It was just the sort of easy initiation that the former Chelsea midfielder would have wanted following his record £37.1m transfer from Stamford Bridge earlier in the week with Robin van Persie and Ashley Young getting the goals.
Mata had a hand in van Persie's opening goal (the Dutchman returning to action after 11 games out with injury) and the Spaniard departed Old Trafford to a standing ovation when he was substituted late on.
"Has my mood improved? Yes because I know that I have some really good players coming back," said David Moyes, who dropped the nice guy approach before the win, which moves United to within two points of sixth-placed Everton.
"I'm happy for the three points but... I want to win better and want to play much better so don't think because I've won tonight that that means that I've got a smile and I'm happy."
In other results, Swansea notched up their first win in nine Premier League games with a 2-0 victory over Fulham. The Swans climbed clear of the relegation trouble thanks to goals from Jonjo Shelvey and Chico Flores but Fulham remain in trouble, just one point above the drop zone.
Joining Swansea in a rise up the table were Crystal Palace, a first-half goal from Jason Puncheon against Hull lifting them to 14th, while Newcastle and Norwich failed to trouble the scorers at Carrow Road. There was some excitement, however, with Newcastle's Loic Remy and Bradley Johnson of Norwich sent off for an off-the-ball scuffle late in the second-half.