There were still five games and seven minutes remaining in the 2002-03 season when a stray elbow cost Arsenal the title. Already hauled back to 2-2 at Highbury by Manchester United, innocuous contact with Sol Campbell’s forearm sparked Solskjær histrionics and sent Mark Halsely gleefully to his pocket.
A red card meant a four-game ban and without Campbell’s steady presence, Arsenal went on to capitulate at Bolton and capsize against Leeds United.
There were still six games and more than 20 minutes remaining in the current Premier League season when an elbow should again have changed the course of a title race.
The clout by Nemanja Vidic that opened Johan Elmander’s head should have earned the Serbian a red-card, a three-match ban and – certainly in a world of newly Webb-expanded penalty boxes – a penalty for Bolton Wanderers.
Had Bolton converted and faced ten men, we would surely see a very different picture this morning than the facile 4-0 stroll United eventually posted.
The referee at the Reebok, don’t forget, was Martin Atkinson – the man who needed little encouragement to send Thomas Vermaelen off and award a penalty to West Ham, for a foul only he and his assistant detected.
Consider also the performance of Howard Webb at Old Trafford last week and St. Andrews this. Last week, Liverpool were the victims of the early innocuous bookings that ate away at their morale. Then there was the penalty.
On Saturday Webb allowed Birmingham players queue politely to foul Arsenal midfielders, neglecting to produce a card until as late as the 70th minute. Arsenal, meanwhile, had Clichy and Song booked for little or nothing. And then there was the offside equaliser from Kevin Phillips. As soon as Sagna was forced to react to prevent the ball reaching Benitez, the offside Ecuadorian had become active.
It’s a sadly familiar pattern. It’s little wonder that Arsenal have never sneaked a title under Arsene Wenger. Each of the three championship wins was convincingly achieved. When they narrowly missed out in 1999, 2003 and to a lesser extent 2005, major decisions just did not go their way.
Of course clever work from Alex Ferguson has to play a significant part. His half-time rant at Atkinson on Saturday was calculated, as usual, to ensure his side got the important decisions after the break. It worked a treat.
Unfortunately, the ability to intimidate is never going to be one of Arsene Wenger’s assets.