Arsenal 1 Manchester United 3
Que sera sera, whatever will be will be. A night that promised nail biting tension, high pitched yelping and bowel clenching nerves actually turned out to be a large vacuum of bloody nosed disappointment as we were put to the sword too early to even take the contest to the full twelve rounds as it were. Pre match the mood was of defiance and heart rendering optimism in some quarters. My pre match prediction that we would draw 1-1 but that United would definitely score first was not met kindly, such was the palpable "up and at them" atmosphere. The sense of occasion was multiplied somewhat when met with the unusual sight of overcrowding at the turnstiles ten minutes before kick off, whilst the flags the club had given out weren`t of the cheap plastic vintage by any means. (Though I still consider it too Chelsea and therefore did not even pick mine up in truth). What was clear from the first minute was that the crowd were up for it and so were the players.
Wenger took the wise choice to start van Persie ahead of Abou Diaby but bafflingly started on the left hand side. But the home side began at an explosive pace, Fabregas` shot ricocheting off Ferdinand and wide for an early corner. Adebayor grappled manfully for the header only to be blocked by van der Sar. But the referee set the tone for an absolutely appalling display by giving a foul when there was never a suggestion of one. Arsenal, backed by a buoyant and noisy crowd, had the wind in their sails, but were promptly knocked out of their stride after eight minutes. Anderson played a ball to Ronaldo in the channel who had just managed to stay onside, he pulled a tame cross back which Gibbs had well covered, but an unfortunate loss of footing allowed Ji Sung Park in to scoop the ball over Almunia and into the net. Mission unlikely had become mission improbable. Gibbs has little recourse for regret, he slipped, you cannot really legislate for that, it could happen to anyone. Ask John Terry. Three minutes later, the tie was sealed and the feeling of anti climax poured through the early evening sunshine like a fast working laxative. Van Persie, needlessly deployed on the left, performed a needless foul on Ronaldo thirty yards from goal. Ronaldo lined it up and thumped it in with interest at Almunia`s near post with the 32 year old Spaniard needlessly attempting another Hollywood save when caution would have seen him palm it out rather comfortably. It was all a bit, well, needless really. It feels churlish to chide Almunia given his first leg heroics, but it once again adds weight to the suspicion that he saves his biggest errors in concentration for games such as these. Stamford Bridge for the last two seasons, countless times against United, the horrible 4-4 draw with Spurs, the Champions League Final, all games where he will look back in anger at soft goals conceded.
Ronaldo meanwhile needlessly ran to goad the Arsenal fans in celebration. I despise it when footballers paid six figure sums to play in games taunt the punters paying exorbitant prices to watch them. I hated it when Henry did it and I hate it when preening fannies like Ronaldo do it. There was no provocation on the part of the home support here; this was not a response to any kind of mass targeting from the crowd gathered in that stand. It was pure malice on the part of Ronaldo. Even David Bentley had the class to go and celebrate with his own supporters when he scored at the Emirates this year, why not have the class and decency to share the moment with the people who have travelled hundreds of miles and paid hundreds of pounds to glory in the moment you provided? That said, the idiots that threw bottles at him really should be ashamed. In the last few minutes of the game, Patrice Evra decided to goad the Arsenal fans when taking a throw in, to the point that the eminently classier Michael Carrick had to walk over and tell him to put a sock in it. When you see players like Darren Fletcher and Phil Jagielka missing the biggest games of their careers unjustly, yet classless morons like Cashley, Ronaldo and Evra lining up, you realise what an unfair world we actually live in. In the 93rd minute of a game United were winning by four goals to qualify for the Champions League Final, Ronaldo remonstrated full bloodedly with the referee to book Sagna for the tiniest show of frustration when placing the ball down for a United throw. This is Cristiano Ronaldo showing contempt for an act of miniscule petulance. I simply cannot relate to a professional or a human being who thinks in such a way at a moment like that. He is an undeniably awesome player; we simply could not live with him last night and his mentality and desire when he has a ball at his feet is peerless, but his attitude as a human being stinks.
It really was game up at this point, Arsenal, having not created a single opportunity against United in 101 minutes, had to pierce Europe`s finest rearguard four times in 78 minutes. With Vidic and Ferdinand as authoritative as ever, even the decision to move van Persie upfront looked to be a tokenist effort on our part. Rooney hit a curling shot which Almunia did very well to tip around the post. When he does not have time to think about a save you tend to see his best work, his penchant for amateur dramatics lets him down at times. It`s perhaps significant that all of his myriad of match saving stops in the First Leg were reaction saves from close range. Arsenal carried on plugging away, despite the scapegoating that will no doubt gather apace today, Adebayor showed a great deal more heart and effort, whilst Fabregas too vainly attempted to close United down ravenously. But with Walcott and van Persie easily enervated, the Gunners just did not have the tools to cause United worry. If the absence of Gallas cost our back four its prime organiser and cajoler as well as its most experienced head, the enforced absence of the relatively unknown quantity that is Arshavin cost us our creativity going forwards and really reminded us all of why we found goals so difficult to come by prior to his arrival. The effort was there from Arsenal, contrary to the predictable hand wringing that is emerging this morning, the belief was not.
Wenger put Eboue on for Gibbs at half time; the Ivorian produced a mesmeric attacking stint on Saturday and the manager obviously adjudged Gibbs` mental state to be too fractured to carry on. The Gunners soldiered but to no avail, with Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson not letting their desire to harry and close down wane for one single second and Ferdinand and Vidic easily able to contain the isolated Adebayor and the ineffective van Persie, Arsenal simply could not trouble United`s goal. Ronaldo skipped effortlessly past Djourou before his low shot was pawed away by Almunia. The icing on United`s cake arrived on 61 minutes, Arsenal over committed for a corner and United gave Arsenal a stark reminder of the sort of goal that was once our trademark, before we decided to swap swift, one touch passing for pretentious chin stroking and dilly dallying. Park raced away with the corner cleared and played a measured ball to Rooney on the left, he made a beeline for goal before sliding the ball into the path of Ronaldo who slid gleefully into the roof of the net. It didn`t make a lot of difference in the long run; the game was long since up. Still, the United fans relaxed even more, firing a broadside at Rafa with the continuous rendition of "we`re going to Rome and that`s a fact."
A handful of Arsenal fans disappointedly made for the exit. People like this should be put in real positions of adversity; they have obviously lived very sheltered and comfortable lives to react in such a childish and spoiled manner. Presumably these are the sorts of people that blow raspberries and throw their dinner plates on the floor when they are served a vegetable they don`t care for. I envy them in a way. Whilst the likes of the moronic Alan Green and the ITV commentary team might well have been handed a field day by the petulance of the walk aways, I`ll bet my left testicle that not one of them highlighted the few thousand of us that applauded United off the pitch after the final whistle. Forgive me for being self congratulatory, but it was the right thing for us to do, we were comfortably outplayed by the better side and completely fairly too and credit to the United players who recognised the gesture and returned it. It might sound misty eyed, but I was bought up with this club as a set of supporters who, like the club itself, behaved with a little bit extra class and distinction and practised good sportsmanship. This football club instilled those values in me, I`ve been going to watch Arsenal on a regular basis for eighteen years now and that is how I have always identified our support, as fair minded. I guess the consequence of filling a 60,000 stadium is that the fully paid up members of the microwave culture will spit their "now, now, now" platitudes, boo players they`re told not to like and walk away when the team lose. It`s reactionary and childish but I guess that`s just the world we live in and crusty romantics like me will have to tolerate it.
The game had now become a procession for United, though substitute Nicklas Bendtner managed more of an impact in fifteen minutes than Walcott managed in the previous 165. He will doubtless be booed by his own fans again before the season`s out. His commendable effort was nearly rewarded when he glided past John O`Shea and fired into the side netting, whilst van Persie stung his compatriot`s palms from distance. Arsenal did grab an unwarranted consolation when van Persie flicked the ball into the path of Fabregas; the tireless Fletcher would not let his desire sag for even an Arsenal consolation as he won the ball from Cesc in the area, the ref capped a miserable performance by awarding a penalty and sending Fletcher off. Arguably United`s best player over the two legs will miss the final and unjustly so, I felt for him. Van Persie duly smashed the penalty past van der Sar, those of us that had not thrown our dollies from the pram displayed a semblance of humour by chanting "we only need four more." Cesc nearly got us 25% of the way there, Bendtner flicked Nasri`s free kick to the back post, but Cesc miscontrolled in front of goal. The final whistle sounded a full 79 minutes after it could have been and United`s place in the final was confirmed. I`m a little astounded that Arsenal fans have reacted so zealously to this, it suggests that this came as a surprise. Perhaps that speaks to how well the club`s propaganda department is doing to elevate expectations, take a look at the curriculum vitae of clubs that have knocked us out of the big tournaments in the last three years, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester United. This is simply our level right now; we are sitting just below that clutch of clubs. The decision the manager has to make this summer surrounds whether we accept that or whether we make a few necessary improvements and really try to compete with those clubs again. I`ve a feeling the latter approach will prove to be a little too 'Icarus` for the club at the moment and they will continue to spin the line about our attractive football and extol the virtue of potential. We shall see; the team is at something of a crossroads now. The hacks may be sharpening their claws and racking up another year on the calendar of the "barren trophy haul", but I am not really fooled so easily. Portsmouth and Spurs won trophies last year and not one of their players, fans or board members would refuse to swap places with us at the moment. What is clear is that Arsenal need to make a few small steps to complete the giant leap, but the manager decided not to try it last summer, whether he has learned form that remains to be seen.LD.