Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0
They do not come much bigger than this, pre match we had speculated that this was our most important game since the 2006 Champions` League Final. An all English tie against the reigning champions of Europe at Old Trafford and the nerves had well and truly set in as I came into the office for the morning. It proved to be an error on my part as the prospect of concentrating on work was very slim. By the time we had fought our way through the Manchester traffic to be greeted at the ground by a giant façade of Rooney holding the European Cup aloft, the tension had well and truly kicked in. Outside the ground, leaflets were being distributed to United supporters advertising flight options` flights to Rome on May 26th. I hope somebody communicates that message to the team; it always baffles me how stupid football supporters can be at times in willing fate against them. There was a whiff of the 1987 League Cup semi final about it when Tottenham led Arsenal at half time at White Hart Lane and the public tannoy system announced ticket details for the Final. Witness also, Arsenal fans pre emptive cries of "ole" as they led Wigan by a single goal in the 2006 League Cup Semi Final, we all know how that turned out!
The team line ups made for interesting reading, with Scholes dropped in favour of the metronomic Fletcher and the more tenacious Anderson, it was clear United were going for a high energy pressing game. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric as the team emerged and the away fans, curiously positioned in the Upper Tier behind the goal on this occasion, rather than the shoehorned corner we are used to, submerged themselves in the 'United Colours of Arsenal` flag, paying liturgy to the multi national canon of cannons. But within seventy seconds of the start, hearts were firmly planted into mouths as United roared at us from the off. Fletcher flighted a precise cross to the back post; Rooney climbed above Sagna and looped his header towards the far corner, only for Manuel Almunia to brilliantly claw it away from the goal line. Minutes later, our mood went from impish to mawkish as Rooney`s cross field ball seemed to have been covered by Gibbs, but he lost his footing in the area allowing Ronaldo on the ball in the area, but the Portuguese pony lashed his shot across goal. United were in again on 16 minutes, with Diaby leaving Gibbs stranded against Ronaldo, the United number 7s low cross found Carlos Tevez all alone in the area with the crowd taking a collective intake of breath, only for Almunia to pull out an outstanding point blank stop. He was up again smartly to close the angel for rebound.
However, the Gunners could not keep relying on the heroics of Almunia and his defence let him down badly from the resulting corner. Carrick had time and space at the back post to put Anderson`s corner back into the danger area, Silvestre could only toe poke the ball as far as John O`Shea who lashed the ball into the roof of the net from close range. It was nothing less than United deserved. Their high octane pressing of Arsenal in all areas of the pitch was embarrassing when compared to our own lethargy. Song, Nasri, Fabregas, Diaby and Walcott were all passengers, all except Nasri were hustled off of the ball by a hungrier United side and none of those five players applied any sort of pressure to United. This left Toure and Silvestre in something of a quandary, when Anderson and Rooney moved into space between midfield and defence, the midfield were so lackadaisical in tracking them that the defenders then did not know whether to close the ball down and cede space or whether to hold their positions and allow the man on the ball time. Denilson must surely be considered for the second leg. The Gunners build up play on the rare occasions they had the ball, missed zip and guile, the two things Arshavin clearly brings to the table, Arshavin is one of our few attacking players not afraid to release the ball first time. His colleagues look like pretentious arse holes in comparison, demanding at least three arty strokes of the brush before administering a lick of paint. The away side did manage to break out of their own half long enough to register their first effort; Walcott bombed past Evra and pulled the ball back to Adebayor, with pretty much his only contribution to the match that was not an absolute disgrace, he tucked the ball back to Fabregas whose low shot was held by van der Sar. It might well have been the only time I can remember Cesc facing the goal with the ball, with his advanced position and United`s impressive and relentless pressing, he was often forced into a position with his back to goal. I`ve a feeling the experimentation with Fabregas in the "Stevie Me" role is over. If it isn`t, it should be. His first goal against Boro emanated from a move started by him in a deep position, his two assists at Wigan arrived when he moved back into central midfield, ditto his assist in Villarreal. Hopefully, with van Persie back, we can abolish this experiment.
There was time for yet more heroics from a goalkeeper who, in the past, has reserved his biggest mistakes for the big games, not so last night. Tevez played another dinked cross which was met by a firm Cristiano Ronaldo header which was brilliantly stopped by Almunia, who was again up quickly to thwart the follow up. I hope this marks a sea change in his Arsenal career. My lingering question over him was his aptitude for big games. Another performance similar to this next Tuesday would go a long way to convincing everybody that he is Arsenal number 1 material. The mercy of the half time whistle arrived and we slumped in our seats again reflecting on how fortunate we were to still be in the tie. (Though a friend of mine did riposte that there is nothing lucky about good goalkeeping, it`s their job after all!)
United`s game plan was clearly to win the tie inside the first thirty minutes, most of their success of late has come in bursts of play. The 22 minutes it took them to rip Spurs apart, the last fifteen minutes against Aston Villa, the first ten minutes in Porto. United are a team running low on steam of late, but they play in devastating bursts of adrenaline fuelled frenzies. Arsenal are a team that tend to start games very slowly but finish them strongly. The answer next week surely relies on Graham`s 89 Anfield blueprint, be sure not to concede in the first half then hit a fatigued United in the second half. 1-0 will take us into extra time, so we need to compose ourselves and be sure not to go too gung ho. United predictably could not attack us with the same ferocity in the first half, but through Fletcher and Anderson snarling at our midfield and Ferdinand and Vidic being given an incredibly comfortable evening by the increasingly idle Adebayor and with Walcott unable to find space. Adebayor did produce one brief flicker of endeavour when he chested Toure`s long ball down past Ferdinand but volleyed over the bar. After yet another lazy pass which trickled out of play, Adebayor was roundly booed by the away supporters and, though I didn`t join in myself, I can`t say as I blame them overly. Eduardo`s name was chanted with gusto shortly after the chorus of disapproval.
I`ve defended Adebayor to the hilt this season but I simply cannot watch a player play as he has in two consecutive semi finals and let it pass without comment. The man`s ego far, far outweighs his talent at the moment and his work rate, once upon a time his redeeming feature, has halted to a level that is not close to acceptable. He has now been dragged off in two semi finals when Arsenal have needed goals, which speaks to how highly his manager has thought of his non displays. It`s time to send the man a very stark message, hopefully with van Persie fit next Tuesday; we can leave this moron to wank over Beyonce and A.C. Milan or whoever else is feeding his overly furtive imagination on the substitute`s bench. The manager needs to speak in harsh tones now; Adebayor might think he has become some kind of demi God and that we should all get a semi on at the mere mention of his name, but he has a mere spec of dust on the history of this football club and a tiny slither of one key on the piano that is Wenger`s reign. If he thinks this club should be beholden to him, it`s time the manager let him know to think again. Once Henry entered his preening, supercilious my shit don`t stink phase, he was shipped out. What a shame that last season`s two most prominent attackers in Europe in the shape of Ade and Ronaldo spent the evening behaving like such fannies. Ronaldo wildly gesticulating like a whining child every time one of his somersaults was ignored by the referee while Adebayor was the by word for disinterest. Both represented everything that is acerbic about the modern footballer, the bizarre sense of entitlement, the swollen egos and an example of how supporters should not worship footballers, they should worship football clubs instead.
Ronaldo did provide one moment in the game that reminded us all that, when he`s not throwing his broccoli across the dinner table and blowing raspberries, he actually is one hell of a footballer. Fabregas was caught in possession deep in his own half, Ronaldo took the ball and smashed it against the cross bar from twenty five yards out. The Stretford End crossbar will no doubt still be reverberating with the ferocity of the strike. The Gunners tried to roll the clock back to May 2005 and perform a mugging on United in the shape of a richly undeserved away goal. Fabregas floated in a free kick which Bendtner attacked with more gusto, desire, guts and belief than Adebayor has shown in his last two games combined, beating van der Sar to the ball but heading wide. Ferdinand cracked a rib in the collision with his goalkeeper which, as much as I feel unsporting saying it, also gives us a glimmer of hope for the second leg. If we can replace Adebayor`s entropy with van Persie and unleash him on a Ferdinand-less defence, then we might just have a chance. Ferdinand is one of the top three centre halves in Europe right now and his loss is a big blow for United. The final whistle sounded and I don`t think either set of fans know how to feel. It`s a bad result, I cannot see us keeping a clean sheet next week and the lack of an away goal looks very ominous. Yet on the other hand, we are incredibly thankful to our goalkeeper this morning that we are still in with any sort of chance, United might feel satisfied with the result but disappointed they have not put the tie to bed. United`s fatigue could be a weak point for us to expose, Ferguson is already complaining this morning about the comparative importance of our fixtures this weekend which shows it worries him. I thought all members of the back five can take heart from their performances, but the midfield is really going to have to protect them much better than they managed last night. To be honest, the suspicion lingers that Arsenal are just not quite cut out for ties such as this, when you view the curriculum vitae of opponents who have knocked us out of the big competitions in the last three years. However, twenty years ago we went into a certain game needing a two goal victory with the odds firmly stacked against us. This morning, I`ll be willing to take inspiration from anywhere.LD.