Manchester United expose leaking Arsenal
Arsenal's day of indignity and embarrassment reached a fitting conclusion as the ceiling in the Emirates Stadium's opulent media theatre came out in sympathy with their defence - and leaked like a sieve.
Panic was swiftly avoided with the use of a bucket and a presumably a plumber. Crisis over. If only Arsenal's own problems could have been solved so simply as Manchester United made it a harrowing afternoon for Arsene Wenger and his team.
Wenger, as he did before the heavy home defeat against Chelsea in November, talked up the meeting with the champions as a measure of his side. Once again Arsenal failed their big examination. Miserably.
The moods of the two old foes Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson could not have been more contrasting - in keeping with the performances of their teams. No fine margins here, United were superior in every department while Arsenal were flimsy, lightweight and bore no resemblance to serious title contenders.
Wenger could barely believe how his team were outclassed by a rampant Manchester United
While Ferguson was jaunty and called on Arsenal to recover and "batter" Chelsea next Sunday, even the arch-optimist Wenger could find no comfort amid the wreckage of a sobering meeting with United.
He complained about United's "anti football" after defeat at Old Trafford earlier in the season, but he could make no such claims here. This was prolonged, painful punishment inflicted by United's mastery and Arsenal had no answer.
Wenger rarely calls out his players in public, but his after-match inquest read like a footballing crime sheet. "Difficult to accept but easy to explain. We were poor defensvely and offensively. We always gave them too much room. We were naive. Maybe too inhibited and tense."
And these were the positives. Wenger also suggested there were "some mental reasons" and reflected on the galling statistic that two of United's goals came directly from Arsenal corners.
No such problems for Ferguson and United, who have had an outstanding week and played with as much attacking conviction as at any time since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Indeed, much of the template for United's success came from the Ronaldo-inspired victory in the Champions League semi-final at the Emirates last season. Ruthless, sweeping counter-attacking football based on the foundations of heavy industry, pace and width with the wonderful Wayne Rooney the focal point.
Rooney's performances come as no surprise these days. I recently questioned Aston Villa's manager Martin O'Neill's description of James Milner as "a great player." Ferguson used the same words to describe Rooney after United's win - no arguments because he is in that elite group now.
The surprise extra dimension for United came in the shape of Nani, so often derided as a Ronaldo-lite show pony, and with good reason. At the Emirates he emphasised his recent progress which Ferguson puts down to personal maturity and his ability to finally overcome a naturally shy nature.
Nani simply tortured Arsenal's Gael Clichy and anyone else who came in close proximity. It was almost cruel and he drew gasps with his trickery that forced Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia into conceding an own goal and set up Rooney for a repeat of the classic goal Ronaldo scored in the Champions League meeting last season.
Ji-Sung Park, who with the excellent Darren Fletcher is trusted by Ferguson in fixtures such as these, illustrated United's superiority and Arsenal's incompetence by running unchallenged over more than half the length of the pitch before being left with little option other than to score.
United were deadly while Arsenal were sitting ducks, displaying every trait that means they are treated with suspicion when Wenger talks up their title credentials. If Arsenal's fans feel previous criticism has been harsh, the grim evidence was laid out before them in all its ugly reality on Sunday and many had seen enough by the time Park made it 3-0 early in the second half.
The champions were bigger, stronger, more forceful and had the better footballers as United's superiority was not reflected by the scoreline. Chelsea are ominous at the top of the table, but United made sure they got the message loud and clear - if they want the title back it will be a fight to the finish.
For Arsenal, title hopes remain but this was defeat on such a damaging scale that it will take special reserves of strength to regroup before next Sunday's visit to Chelsea.
Arsenal lacked stature in all its forms, they were horribly indisciplined tactically as they were hit on the break with monotonous regularity, United feeding off a naivety unbecoming of a team with such lofty ambitions.
And Wenger must take his share of the blame for this. Arsenal were still making the same basic organisational errors at the end of the game as they were at the start and they were either unwilling or unable to make the adjustments.
The likes of Tomas Rosicky, Denilson and Samir Nasri looked feeble as United ran all over Arsenal. It actually did look like men against boys at times.
Wenger riled Martin O'Neill by taking the purists' stance after the draw at Aston Villa, labelling them a "long ball" side. Arsenal might actually benefit from a bit of long ball themselves because their studied passing style has drawn blanks against Chelsea and United at home this season and variety can be the spice of life.
Arsenal's uncertainly was summed up best by the performance of goalkeeper Almunia. Horribly at fault for United's first goal, he looked like he had had his self-confidence surgically removed by the final whistle, especially when he lashed a throw in straight to Nani in a blind panic.
The jeers at the final whistle summed up Arsenal's sombre mood. It was the sound of their title hopes being deflated, the fear that the Premier League is another trophy Arsenal will not be winning this season.
If this is so, it leaves the Champions League as Arsenal's only other hope of their first silverware since 2005 and it takes some leap of the imagination to picture the team we saw on Sunday lifting that trophy. It just makes Wenger's apparent ambivalence to the FA Cup and Carling Cup even more puzzling - when you have not been winning trophies, you cannot afford to be fussy about your targets.
For United and Ferguson, this result will serve as a huge injection of self-belief. This was the sort of performance they used to produce with Ronaldo, and to exert such authority on Arsenal without him will do wonders for confidence.
Wayne Rooney has already scored 20 times in the Premier League this season
And they have Rooney, the talisman so crucial to United and England. He now looks the complete attacking player, the spearhead for club and country to such an extent even some Arsenal fans were hushed when he slumped to the floor clutching his knee in the second half.
It was no more than a kick, but Ferguson and Capello will live with the fear of any misfortune befalling Rooney. He is irreplaceable for United and England.
He scored his 100th Premier League goal when he swept in that brilliant second on Sunday, with his first also coming against Arsenal as a 16-year-old on that memorable Goodison Park day in October 2002.
Wenger hailed Rooney then and he did again on Sunday. It was praise through the pain as United brutally exposed Arsenal's old fragilities and questioned their fitness to be taken seriously as Premier League title contenders.
And then there were two.