Aubameyang atones from spot to help Arsenal leapfrog Manchester United

After the low point of Rennes, Arsenal reacquainted themselves with the winning feeling. After the euphoria of Paris, Manchester United tasted Premier League defeat for the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. This topsy-turvey season continues to confound and, as the dust settled, the fight for third and fourth place in the top-flight table could not have been more tantalisingly poised.

Arsenal had been abject in the 3-1 defeat at Rennes on Thursday night – in the first-leg of the Europa League last 16 – but they found a way to maintain their imposing form at the Emirates Stadium. It was not a vintage display, one in which they laboured for clear-cut chances and were grateful, at times, to the goalkeeper, Bernd Leno. But a Granit Xhaka goal – assisted by a rare David de Gea misjudgment – and a generously-awarded Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty were enough to lift them above United into fourth place.

Arsenal are now just one point behind third-placed Tottenham and, to paraphrase their supporters in stoppage time, they are coming for their local rivals. Their run-in features no more fixtures against teams from the top six but five away matches – none of which look straightforward. Arsenal have won only five times away from home in the league this season. Their fate will surely be determined on the road and it is anybody’s guess which Arsenal will show up on those occasions.

The stain on the afternoon was provided by the fan that ran onto the pitch after Aubameyang’s penalty conversion to celebrate with the Arsenal striker. As he sprinted past the United defender, Chris Smalling, he appeared to shove him and it was one of those moments when you wondered what was going through the man’s head (probably not very much) and, moreover, were thankful that nothing serious happened.

United had arrived fresh from their 3-1 Champions League miracle at Paris St-Germain, which got them into the quarter-finals, and boasting a record of nine away wins from nine matches in all competitions under Solskjær. They created the chances to have taken something here but they were strangely out of sync in front of goal. As a former striker, Solskjær knows it can happen. That said, his team were kept out twice by the woodwork – through Romelu Lukaku and Fred.

Unai Emery rolled the dice with his Arsenal line-up, starting with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil for the first time since 29 September, not to mention Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang up front. He wanted to fight fire with fire and he enjoyed an early tonic when Xhaka scored his fourth of the season, although that told only a part of the story.

The midfielder tried his luck from 25 yards, cutting across the ball with the outside of his left boot and summoning surprising power with the technique. It was the swerve, though, that did for De Gea. He did not see it coming. In fact, he was leaning towards his left and, when the ball began to fizz the other way, he could not react. Solskjær suggested that “Xhaka must be Brazilian,” such was the movement that he got on the shot.

United’s first effort that came back off the woodwork felt like the wasted opportunity, not least because it denied them the chance to gain control. Lukaku diverted Luke Shaw’s ninth minute cross down and up against the crossbar and he really ought to have scored. Fred’s near miss came on 19 minutes when he took aim with a low curler from outside the area. It kissed the outside of the post.

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka scores his side’s first goal of the game.

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka scores his side’s first goal of the game. Photograph: John Walton/PA

Marcus Rashford had two first-half chances – Xhaka blocked the second with an excellent challenge – but it was Lukaku who blew another clear one after he rounded Leno on 36 minutes. The goalkeeper snaked an arm back to thwart him.

Lacazette had two nice moments at the other end in the first-half and it was a measure of his threat that Smalling stood off him on the first one. Both were blocked by last-ditch challenges.

Solskjær said he was happy with the overall United performance and they continued to push after the interval. Once again, they created an opening for Lukaku and, once again, Leno saved. Fred played in the striker and he got his shot away under pressure only for Leno, who had left his line quickly, to block. Leno caught Laurent Koscielny with his follow through and the defender was left with a deep cut to his leg. He played on through the pain, epitomising the Arsenal resilience.

Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

Arsenal flickered around the hour mark, with Aubameyang and Xhaka having sightings of goal, before the penalty changed the complexion of the game. Lacazette had the position on Fred as he surged into the area and, when the United midfielder leaned into him, there was some contact, although not a lot. Lacazette went down and the referee, Jon Moss, angered Solskjær by pointing to the spot. Even Emery described the decision as “soft.”

Aubameyang had missed his previous penalty against Spurs, which had been to win the derby in the last-minute, and he went up the middle here, which felt risky. De Gea, though, had committed himself and the ball found its target. Arsenal had a grip on the points and Lacazette might have added a third only to drag wide after a Victor Lindelof error. United’s frustration was complete when Rashford headed tamely at Leno.

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