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the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Arsenal 2 – 1 Manchester United: Samir Nasri’s Gliding Circus

The goals were scored by Samir Nasri and Rafael da Silva, the one an 11-year-old with a pet frog in a shoebox, the other a four-month-old who will only get better when he starts eating solid foods. In the intervals between scoring, the pitch was on a seesaw, and everyone rolled downhill.

It was a probing, twisty game, much less nasty than these matches have been in years past: it was like watching the inner workings of an expert diplomat’s mind. Manuel Almunia took a shin to the side of the head, but peaceably continued for another 10 minutes and waited to slip into a coma till Wenger brought him off. Gallas did some bellowing, but only at his teammates. Rooney did some bellowing, but only at an invisible aggressor floating somewhere behind his right shoulder, as usual.

The real struggle in the match was between United’s badly broken laser targeting system and Arsenal’s badly broken defense. The competition was intense among Man Utd players to see who could most easily win three yards of space only to blast a shot toward the moons of Jupiter. On the other end, Arsenal passed with the sparkling clarity of a team no more than 8% of whose touches will be taken by Theo Walcott. Fabregas’s sensational escape-turn-and-pass move to set up Nasri’s second goal wasn’t Arsenal’s only brilliant moment, but it was one of the only ones that didn’t somehow feel rehearsed.

But the match had grip, as H. Rider Haggard would say. The last 10 minutes piled up like a drumbeat slowly getting louder, which is all you can ask of a soccer match, or of an H. Rider Haggard novel, for that matter. If I were an Arsenal fan, the team’s flagrant unwillingness to run time off the clock or utilize a holding midfielder might unnerve me, but I would be re-nerved by the thought that this skeleton crew of reserves and injured starters picked up three points on a key rival and two points on the club’s record from last year. The truth is that both these clubs look slightly worse than they did last season, but for the next week or two it will be Man Utd who have to face the enervating grind of answering questions about it.

Cristiano Ronaldo took his shirt off the second the match ended and walked off, gently steaming, like someone who’d been hoping to take his shirt off under better circumstances. Dimitar Berbatov walked alongside him, wearing the scowl of someone who’d really prefer not to take his shirt off and who resents the tacit peer pressure imposed by the heat and vanity of the game.

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Arsenal 2 – 1 Manchester United: Samir Nasri’s Gliding Circus

by Brian Phillips · November 8, 2008

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