Manchester United 1 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Monreal (25)
1 – 1 Rooney (29)
1 – 2 Welbeck (61)
Sent off: Di Maria (76)
A good night’s work received its’ just reward when Michael Oliver’s strong refereeing performance received wide acclaim. Arsenal didn’t do too badly out of it either; facing the winners of the Bradford or Reading replay in the semi-final at Wembley was probably the one they would have chosen before the draw was made.
Oliver’s performance, even without his rightful dismissal of Di Maria, contributed to what was a pulsating cup-tie. Strong enough to deal with theatrics from both sides, he ignored the constant whining and imploring of United’s captain and players to book their opponents and give decisions to the home team for their despicable theatrics.
That they resorted to such tactics even with eleven players on the field underlined the bankruptcy of ideas and ability which holds sway at Old Trafford. Would that Oliver’s predecessors had possessed such strength of character.
Arsenal deserved the victory. The footballing rope-a-dope which emerged at Manchester City earlier this year, re-appeared last night. Territory was wilfully ceded in exchange for biting attack. In previous weeks, conceding a quick equaliser might have instigated a collapse of nerve, particularly with poor defending a key cause of the goal. Last night, Arsenal shrugged their shoulders and got on with it.
That attitude, so often missing this season, made the world of difference.
And amid it all, was the luxury of footballing revenge of sorts. Danny Welbeck capitalised on lax defensive play to ram last summer’s parting words firmly down United’s Dutch manager’s throat. No holding back in celebrating the goal, the boos which cascaded around the stadium as Welbeck was replaced by Olivier Giroud, confirmed the former hero was, in many eyes, the pantomime villain so often missing from Premier League football.
Such a chorus was music to Arsenal ears. It was obvious by that point, the players of United were beaten. The supporters, in their reaction, confirmed their surrender that not even a resurgence of belief when five additional minutes of added time commenced.
For Arsenal’s unsung cast, it was an evening of vindication, if they felt they needed it. Rooney’s equaliser was the only piece of genuinely poor play from the centre back pairing; Mertesacker and Koscielny left Szczesny exposed with a gap wider than needed by the turning circle of a Routemaster. They were suitably punished. But every time United threatened to breach the visitors defence, it felt that they – particularly the German – were there to step into the breach, very calmly.
Not that United threatened that often. They had the possession but were wasteful, harried and hassled out of possession by the yapping, snapping guard dog, Coquelin, in midfield. The full backs played their part; Bellerin, booked early on, remained calm and was only hooked when Young’s theatrical dives took an even more shameful turn for the worse.
On another night the young Spaniard might well have seen a second yellow but the desperate howls of the United players were ignored by the referee. Arsène wisely chose not to test Mr Oliver’s patience any further and put on Calum Chambers instead. Young found even less change out of him than he the morsels he had from Bellerin.
But for me, the star turn came from Nacho Monreal. Coquelin was voted Man of the Match by the viewers of the noxious broadcaster who staged this match on a Monday evening yet it was surprising that Monreal was overlooked entirely for in the cast list. His Oscar was surely guaranteed with the calmest of finishes after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had danced through the United players, leaving them strewn across their home stage.
Up front, it was a mixed evening. Özil probably topped the stats for miles run with his deceptive and languid style. The German prompted when afforded space yet his contribution was sporadic. Cazorla meanwhile, was an eager beaver in attack, creating opportunities for others as well as producing a directness which troubled United.
The turning point – or that which confirmed Arsenal’s ascendency – arrived with the unfortunate withdrawal of Oxlade-Chamberlain. His injury is the only blight on the evening. His absence for what will most likely be several weeks reduces the options on the right but might finally offer Theo Walcott the opportunity to express himself.
I wasn’t surprised Walcott didn’t replace Ox last night, it was too early in the second half and Arsenal still had graft to do. Ramsey offered bite in the centre; he and Coquelin recycled the ball thoughtfully and their prompting proved troublesome for the ham-fisted United defence.
Indeed, were it not for De Gea, the margin of victory would have been greater. Two saves of outstanding quality prevented Arsenal doubling their score and it was surprising he was not in contention for the Oscar, rather than this nation’s saving disgrace, Rooney, whose constant moaning in Michael Oliver’s ears was pathetic.
Post-match, Arsène was understandably impressed with his team,
I think we started without any apprehension. That gave them problems. Unfortunately at half-time it was 1-1 but overall we felt we were in control in the second half after we scored the second goal. We could have scored one or two more. Overall I’m pleased above all with the performance and the mental aspect of the game. It was always positive and you know that I like that.
It was indeed a positive performance, almost at odds with displays in recent weeks. Arsenal raised their game in what has so often been an arena where they have performed tragedies. They played to their strengths and received due reward. I can’t think of one player who did not perform well. Szczesny was nervous at times, understandable given his recent illness and lack of training, on top of the pressure of the occasion. A fumble or two but for the most part, safe.
Winning last night was more than the FA Cup, it is about giving the players belief that they can win the ‘big’ matches away from home. With United’s run of upcoming fixtures, the season’s second meeting at Old Trafford may well be irrelevant in the context of the race for Champions League placings. Even if it isn’t, last night showed Arsenal have nothing to fear from the contest.