Champions League Semi-Final, 2nd Leg
Arsenal 1 – 3 Manchester United
Manchester United win 4 – 1 on aggregate
0 – 1 Park (8)
0 – 2 Ronaldo (11)
0 – 3 Ronaldo (60)
1 – 3 van Persie (75 pen)
Fletcher sent off (74)
The undertakers started hammering the nails in the coffin of this tie before double figures had passed in terms of minutes, finished their work just as the eleventh minute passed. Two quick United goals left Arsenal with their own K2 to climb; it was a mountain too far.
Arsene said after the game:
This is one of the biggest disappointments of my time here because the fans were really up for a big night and hurts so much to disappoint them all
My over-riding memory of this tie is how effectively a team who pass the ball so sweetly and efficiently were kept comfortably at bay. A deeply disappointing end to the pursuit of glory yet one that should not disappear in a mire of recrimination and finger-pointing. Positively gutting; absolutely disappointing.
Fingers are pointing in the direction of Gibbs and Almunia, the youngster replaced at half time by Eboue so shot to pieces was his confidence. Before castigating them too harshly, remember the contributions that they have made in getting the club to the semi-final and in Almunia’s case, keeping the team in the semi-final.
Questions undoubtedly will be asked about the squad, not least in the . Are the players good enough to win silverware? History will tell us the answer to that in years to come. I point you to the history of the club and draw parallels between now and the period of 1986-88 when a team that threatened to win the league in both seasons before fading badly, winning the Littlewoods Cup in 1987, won nothing the following year. That was the last squad that had youth and potential. They had opponents who possessed superior experience, superior firepower for two seasons. The third season proved that patience is a virtue. Not easily acquired. Easily discarded.
Before moving onto the match itself, a word of credit to Manchester United. They deserved their place in Rome. At home they were dominant, away they capitalised on the early opportunities presented to them. There is no shame in losing to a better team, tribal rivalries should be cast aside in recognising this. It is not often that I feel magnanimous towards a team which has vanquished Arsenal but rather like Spartak Moscow in 1982 / 83, sometimes you just have to admit that the better side won.
Crucially, Arsenal failed to create a chance worthy of the name during the two legs of this tie before it was over, save for two opportunities from Fabregas in the first leg and van Persie last night. Both were from twenty or so yards which sums up the insurmountable problems faced in this semi-final. The forward line was well-marshalled by their opponents defence, the midfield shackled by their peers.
Yet for eight minutes of the second leg the scene was set for a rampaging performance. Passes were strung together, tackles made as snappily as their equivalent in the first leg. All that was undone by an unfortunate slip by Gibbs, permitting Park the opportunity to break the deadlock. Three goals in eighty-two minutes? Not really an issue, still achievable. Four goals in seventy-eight stretched belief.
Ronaldo hit an exceptional free-kick. Hindsight – and the advantage of a sado-masochistic choice to watch the match in it’s entirety on returning home from the game – show the error that the Spaniard committed in his positioning; not an easy observation from the opposite side of the stadium in real time. Interestingly, Jens Lehmann – not Almunia’s biggest fan- spoke in his defence in the post-match deluge of crap that was spouted, blaming the design of the ball which apparently enables it to pick up speed the further it travels. It doesn’t matter as to the ‘whys’, the result was Almunia picking the ball out of the net for a second time.
The Spaniard learned his lessons, producing good saves from Ronaldo and Rooney, efforts from distance that were goal-bound. Arsenal though reeled, punch drunk, stumbling through the remainder of the first half. The players were visibly shocked by the two United goals, struggling to get their foothold in the match. A response before the interval would have lifted them; it never came.
On the hour mark, the end that was inevitable became confirmed. United broke at speed through Park, Ronaldo and Rooney before the latter crossed, Ronaldo meeting the ball in the area to score the visitors’ third. It was the sort of goal Arsenal has scored on numerous occasions, a joy to watch unless you are on the receiving end.
The awarding of a penalty to Arsenal gave a crumb of comfort from a night where consolations are scant, van Persie drilling home an unstoppable shot. Fletcher’s red card is unfortunate for the lad, joining a list of players from the history of football who have been robbed of a ‘glory night’. Personally, I cannot see the reason why the decision is being queried, save for the unfortunate outcome. The tackle came from the side and impeded Fabregas, a decision that would have been given in every Premier League match. The referee was directly behind the action and gave the decision based on that which he saw. No instant replays for him nor, I suspect, a change of heart even if he had that benefit.
Post match, Arsene said that he will ‘evaluate’ where the team went wrong. Aside from being outplayed, he has to strike a balance between what is genuinely wrong and that which has gone wrong through mistakes. Mistakes that can happen to a player with ten years experience at the highest level as easily as they can with players who have ten games under their belt.
The problem for Wenger is that if he buys, he is limited as to what position to fill for. The purchase of Arshavin has reinvigorated the side and is being held up as a model for the spending route. However, the Russian is an exceptional player, something hard to match in defence for example.
I hear and read many comments over time about how this side lacks experience, how that is crucial in winning trophies. That is correct for they have won none. Let me ask you one question. When talking about experience, how many Arsenal teams who had that commodity in abundance, won the European Cup in its various guises? How many of them even reached this stage?