Owen Hargreaves was Manchester United’s unlikely goal-scoring hero as the English Premier League leaders came from behind to see-off title challengers Arsenal 2-1 at Old Trafford in London on Sunday.
Emmanuel Adebayor had put Arsenal in front in the 48th minute only for Cristiano Ronaldo to equalise minutes later with his 38th goal of a remarkable season for United.
The comeback was completed when Hargreaves settled the match with a superb free kick 18 minutes from time.
Victory left reigning champions United six points clear at the top of the table, although second-placed Chelsea will cut that lead to just three points if they beat Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
But this result effectively ended Arsenal’s title challenge as it left them nine points adrift of United with just four games of the league season left. It also meant the Gunners’ run without a trophy was set to be extended to three years after they lost in the Champions League quarterfinals to English rivals Liverpool earlier in the week.
England midfielder Hargreaves, best known for his defensive skills, made it 100 goals for United in just 50 games this campaign when his curled free kick from the edge of the box over the wall left goalkeeper Jens Lehmann standing.
Adebayor had headed Arsenal in front three minutes into the second period when he got on the end of Robin van Persie’s cross and exploited confusion between United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and centre-back Rio Ferdinand.
Although there were no complaints from the United players, replays suggested Adebayor may have handled the ball rather than knocked it in with his head, even though he was just a few yards away from goal.
However, minutes later, handball at the other end helped draw United level. Arsenal defender William Gallas clearly handled inside his own area and referee Howard Webb pointed to the spot.
Although Ronaldo ”scored”, Webb ordered the penalty to be retaken because of encroachment by other players.
Lehmann, only playing because of a wrist injury to first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, was then booked for delaying the second kick.
But Ronaldo, making light of the pressure of the situation, stuck with his stuttering run-up and struck the ball low and hard past the Germany international’s right-hand in the 54th minute.
Earlier on Sunday, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard scored and then turned provider for Fernando Torres in a 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers at Anfield.
The Reds’ two leading marksmen this season — Spain striker Torres now has 30 goals and midfielder Gerrard 21 — were both on target as Liverpool strengthened their hold on fourth place. Substitute Andriy Voronin added a third in the 90th minute.
This win left Liverpool five points clear of city rivals Everton in the race for the final Champions League qualifying spot on offer to English clubs.
Sunday’s match, played out against a backdrop of ongoing boardroom rows at Anfield, was deadlocked until the hour mark when England midfielder Gerrard beat several Rovers players on the edge of the box before sliding the ball past goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
Torres then became the first Liverpool player to score in seven consecutive top-flight games at Anfield when he headed in Gerrard’s cross eight minutes from time.
Voronin then got on the end of a John Arne Riise cross to make it 3-0 before Roque Santa Cruz pulled a goal back for Rovers in stoppage time. — Sapa-AFP