Last updated : 04 April 2004 By Editor


There will be no Treble for Arsenal to lay alongside Manchester United's of five years ago, a Villa Park semi-final proving the Becher's Brook that brought them crashing down yesterday. Now they must climb back into the saddle to meet the challenge of Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle over the next week with the weariness of losers and without either Jose Antonio Reyes or Fredrik Ljungberg. Both were injured in the second half as the London side, below their best, threw on more and more attackers - including, belatedly, Thierry Henry - without ever quite looking like retrieving Paul Scholes' beautifully worked goal.

Sir Alex Ferguson may be resigned to losing the Premiership title to his old adversaries, but after three draws and a win against them this season he is entitled to believe firstly that the gap between the sides is smaller than the 12 points indicated by the League table, and secondly that his own men have turned an important corner. Three of the older hands - Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Scholes - combined to create the goal, but the performers Ferguson picked out were from the new generation: Cristiano Ronaldo, Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown.

Ronaldo is learning to do his tricks to good effect, the show pony slowly becoming a thoroughbred. Seeing plenty of the ball as United concentrated their efforts down the right, he would have troubled the England full-back Ashley Cole, let alone the less experienced Gaël Clichy, who did well to rein him in a little as he tired in the second half. Fletcher, often used in that position, was now exceptional alongside Roy Keane in the centre of midfield, encouraging all those of Scottish descent as well as United affiliation. Meanwhile Brown continued to recover the authority that seemed lost during the early games after his return from a long injury.

With Keane and Scholes biting into every tackle, to Wenger's displeasure, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as willing a worker as ever, United thus managed to overcome the handicap of Ruud van Nistelrooy's absence. Louis Saha was also missing, Cup-tied, but Wenger failed to take full advantage, leaving his principal goalscorer Henry in the dug-out for almost an hour as the young Jérémie Aliadière again proved to be no replacement. Ljungberg, even before he broke his hand, was again peripheral, and neither Edu not Robert Pires maintained their high standards among the physical demands of the midfield battle.


Like the match-day traffic, football’s transfer of power from north to south was delayed in the vicinity of Birmingham yesterday. Although Arsenal are the best team in the country, maybe in Europe, there will be no Treble for them at the end of a season of coruscating pre-eminence. Manchester United saw to that in a pulsating FA Cup semi- final.

Arsène Wenger and his formidable League leaders arrived unbeaten in the cup since the 2001 final — a triumphant run stretching back 18 ties — and had not lost a game against domestic opposition in 2003-4. By contrast, United, their star eclipsed, were in danger of finishing empty-handed for the second time in three seasons. It was a situation in which the motivational edge lay with Sir Alex Ferguson, and he played the advantage for all it was worth, pointing out forcibly to his charges that Arsenal had the "cheek" to rest Thierry Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes with Tuesday’s European Cup quarter-final against Chelsea at Highbury in mind.

In so doing, Wenger sent out entirely the wrong message —- to his own players, in terms of their priorities, as well as the opposition. He ought to have picked his strongest team. When Henry started on the bench (his introduction was delayed until the 57th minute) the psychological advantage changed sides. Much relieved to find himself up against an inexperienced reserve, Jeremie Aliadiere, rather than the best striker in the world, Wes Brown was able to assemble a man-of-the-match performance from the wreckage of another disappointing campaign.

Collectively, United took the field full of fire and brimstone, determined not only to keep their own season alive, but also to prevent their great rivals from emulating their Treble of 1999. Ferguson was without his own master striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, who is injured, but compensated cleverly by using Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the focal point of his attack, with Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo deployed wide to either side to occupy Arsenal’s adventurous full-backs.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher were magnificent as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men proved they remain a potent force

For two months Manchester United have limped along, and although the lameness was exaggerated, it was nevertheless real. Beaten in the European Cup by Porto, battered by their neighbours in Manchester; all that remained was for them to fold their tents and creep away. Instead they turned up at Villa Park yesterday and reminded us of familiar truths. Manchester United remain a formidable side. Contrary to reports this season, their London rivals do not have copyright on team spirit. The differences yesterday were fine, and if the Gunners had finished one or two excellent chances early in the match, it would have been different. They didn’t, and, buoyed by their first-half goal, United showed the greater will to win.

This was United without the cup-tied Louis Saha and the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy. On their knees, you might have supposed. But if United were down, they meant to get back up, and if a crisis season is one in which you finish second or third in the championship, win the FA Cup and are unluckily knocked out of the European Cup, then we are losing the sense of real crisis. Roy Keane patrolled the midfield with determination and protected his defence fiercely. It was no surprise that Arsenal didn’t get within shooting distance of goal through a second half they dominated. Keane is still a spiritual colossus. How could anybody have forgotten? So what’s new? Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher. They were both immense, but nobody should be surprised. Sir Alex Ferguson has long been a fine judge of footballing talent and his belief in both players has been unflinching. Yesterday you understood why. Ronaldo, especially, was terrific. He has pace, blinding skill and a precious ability to go past players.


With a hop, skip and a jump, Sir Alex Ferguson did his own version of Porto coach José Mourinho at the final whistle, his face resembling a cat that had won a lifetime's supply of the finest French cream. To the soundtrack of 'Where's your Treble gone?' cascading from the Trinity Road stand, he relished a tactical and emotional triumph.

This was a double for United in terms of satisfaction. Not only can they provide a season of underachievement with consolation in the form of the FA Cup, they have also kept their 1999 achievement sacred. A first-half goal by Paul Scholes was enough to win a contest that was competed in with noticeably more spirit and determination by the men from Old Trafford. This was their season - they knew it and showed it.

United, having this season endured a defensive crisis and had question marks hanging over the creativity of a midfield shorn of David Beckham and Juan Sebastián Verón, this was the day their attack was at its weakest. Ferguson was deprived of his top three strikers - Ruud van Nistelrooy through injury, while Louis Saha was cup-tied and Diego Forlán deemed too tired after returning from international duty in South America.

That they were able to compensate owed everything to a well-devised game plan that was followed to the letter every United player. Much depended on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the lone ranger, who was full of endeavour and intelligence. Support was particularly effective from wide positions, where the riveting Cristiano Ronaldo, often assisted by Ryan Giggs's roaming runs, posed a constant danger. Ferguson had identified 18-year-old Gael Clichy as a weak link and instructed his men to direct traffic along his side.

The scenes of joy come the final whistle suggest something more effusive. On came the famous absentees and the clenched fists from Rio Ferdinand and bear hugs from Van Nistelrooy added to the mad defiance as United let off some pent-up steam. And with Nationwide League opposition guaranteed in the final, a silver lining may well complete United's troubled season.


In making themselves odds-on favourites for the FA Cup - Sir Alex Ferguson, though his season has been blighted by issues of the turf, will surely be in no mood to object to the metaphor - Manchester United issued a statement about the English game: if Arsenal and Chelsea want its future to be shaped in London, they can expect a run for their money.

United's general inferiority to Arsenal is reflected in a Premiership deficit that even the psychological effect of this result is unlikely to close. United knew that, if they engaged in an open contest of skill, they would probably lose, and planned accordingly, with such astuteness that what little got past a midfield superbly held together by Paul Scholes usually fell foul of a defence in which the absence of Rio Ferdinand went, for once, unnoticed.

There has been much talk, since Arsenal's domestic position became apparently unassailable and United were removed from the Champions League by Porto, of Ferguson's empire crumbling, or at least cracking, under a variety of strains including Ferguson's dispute with the Irish shareholders over the horse. Much of it has been fanciful: a product, perhaps, of wishful thinking. Although United had to endure the shame of relegation three decades ago, football has changed and, for better or worse, big clubs have a habit of remaining at the forefront.