Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Arsenal's 11-Minute Self-Destruction Sees Manchester United March On to Rome

Two goals in the opening 11 minutes ended Arsenal's slim hopes of going to the Champions League Final in Rome this year. Ji-Sung Park and a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick effectively handed the tie to Manchester United, who had come into the game with a slender 1-0 lead, after their near total domination over the Gunners in the first leg.

Cristiano Ronaldo then added a second goal to leave an unassailable 3-0 lead on the night after a superb United counter attack from an Arsenal corner. (0-4 agg)

Heading into the match, Arsenal fans were jubilant, as soon as the team sheets were out. Robin Van Persie was returned to the team to partner Emmanuel Adebayor up front, as Arsene Wenger set out his stall to chase the game.

They were further buoyed by the fact that Alex Ferguson chose to go with a seemingly conservative team. Out went the in-form Carlos Tevez, and in came Anderson and Ji-Sung Park, as United went for a straight forward 4-5-1 formation.

But the real truth of the teams couldn't have been further from the paper they were written on.

United started with all guns blazing, chasing and harrying throughout the pitch. And instead of being galvanised by their opponents' defensive outlook, the Gunners seemed to shrink on the big stage.

Cesc Fabregas, trying to bring some urgency to his team, tried his luck from outside the box, his venomous shot taking two deflections before it trickled past the relieved Edwin van der Sar's post.

The first sucker punch to Arsenal came in the eighth minute. Anderson slotted the ball through to Ronaldo, his cut back looked innocuous but Arsenal's left full, Kieran Gibbs made an absolute howler and misjudged the path of the ball and slipped, the ball finding Park who calmly found the corner of Manuel Almunia's net.

The goal meant that the Gunners had to find three goals to progress to the showpiece final...

Three minutes later, the game was over, after Ronaldo fired home a free kick from fully 42 yards. Almunia was most culpable here, a real shoddy piece of goalkeeping that will give him and Arsene Wenger nightmares for years to come.

Ironically, the two players who had performed best in the onslaught at Old Trafford were now at fault for practically giving the game away at the Emirates.

Football can be a cruel mistress.

The two early goals not only took the early impetus away from the Arsenal team, but from their fans, too. The Emirates stadium had a magnificent chorus for roughly eight minutes, and after that, it began to resemble a library.

With United in firm control and Arsenal growing more and more frustrated at not having the answers on how to break down their Premiership counterparts, the referee blew for half time.

Emmanuel Eboue was brought on at halftime for Kieran Gibbs, the Arsenal youngster had a real 'mare, and it will take him a long time to get over this performance. Roll on Chelsea on Saturday...

The second half continued in the same vein as the first. United's maturity really showed and they easily gained the upper hand, controlling the game.

For the next 20 minutes, United toyed with Arsenal. It was a real case of men against boys. Everything that the Red Devils did had a real purpose about it, while Arsenal's key players all looked blank, not one idea between them.

The final nail in the coffin came in the 60th minute.

Arsenal were enjoying their first real pressure of the game, forcing a string of corners. But again, United showed their young opponents how the game should be played.

Defending each corner brilliantly, they resembled Manny Pacquiao against Ricky Hatton and chose the moment to unleash all their fury with perfection.

Ji-Sung Park released Ronaldo, who back-heeled the return pass to Park. He then found Wayne Rooney sprinting free on the left. Ronaldo, who had put in a lung-busting run into the box, pounced on Rooney's inch-perfect pass to finish the game.

One of the best counter attacking goals you'll ever see.

The game was over, well and truly. Reflected in both scoreline and in play. United were utterly dominant, and it has been a long time since I've seen an away leg in the Champions League approached as perfectly as they did tonight.

Like everyone else, I had my reservations. With no Tevez in the team, I had feared for United, but the way they took Arsenal apart was a real joy to behold.

Rooney and Evra, as expected, made their way to the bench. No need for these important players to run the risk of picking up a booking that would rule them out of the final. And even without this star duo, the game stayed in United's favour.

With 15 minutes to go, Arsenal were handed a chance at a consolation goal. Cesc Fabregas ran in on goal and Darren Fletcher came in and tackled from behind.

He did make slight contact with the ball, but under his weight, Fabregas went down and the Italian referee pointed to the spot. He also gave Fletcher a harsh red card, and the young Scot, who was probably United's most impressive midfielder on the night, will now miss the trip to Rome.

Fletcher follows in the footsteps of United legends, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, who both missed the '99 final against Bayern Munich after picking up bookings against Juventus in the semis.

It was a tackle that did not need to be made. At 4-0 down, the game was over, but in making the effort at the tackle, we were once again shown why United have been at the pinnacle of Premiership football for the last decade.

United keep playing the game. They never stop. They have had the message of keeping a clean sheet drummed into them, and that real players play for 90 minutes and give the same effort throughout.

Robin van Persie stepped up with a stunning penalty that gave Van der Sar no chance.

It's always easy to take a penalty confidently when it means nothing. For 74 minutes, Van Persie was a spectator, anonymous. He offered his teammates nothing throughout the match in terms of his play or his set pieces.

The penalty was pretty much as the end of the game, and it was quite significant that Alex Ferguson chose to defend Arsene Wenger's young team after the match.

The Scot was the perfect gentleman in offering excuses for why Arsenal had played so poorly, offering the early goals, youth, and the big occasion as the reasons why United suffocated them so much.

For Arsene Wenger, it means that the summer needs to be a busy time at the club if they are to challenge for trophies next season.

Completely outplayed over the course of their last two semifinals against Chelsea and United, respectively.

In my opinion, there are too many ordinary players at the club. Toure has gone backwards, Almunia is not of sufficient class to be considered a top calss keeper; Johan Djourou is little more than a squad player at best.

Alex Song is Premiership standard, as is Denilson, but you won't win titles with either. The book is still out on Theo Walcott, dazzling one minute, anonymous the next.

Fergie brings his team to Rome, where they await the winners of Chelsea and Barcelona who play tomorrow night.

For football fans of any team, we should pray that Barca deliver tomorrow night.

Then we'll have a real fantasy football final.

twitter / WillieGannon