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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
There is a reason why Manchester United are the best team in the world. They don't lift all those trophies simply because they have better players, or smarter tactics. They succeed so frequently because Sir Alex Ferguson has built himself a team of winners, professional and ruthless, indomitable and unbreakable. Arsenal were eight minutes into what appeared to be a spirited attempt to balance their Champions League semi-final when a slip from Kieran Gibbs gave Manchester United a chance, and you only need to glance at the history books to know what this team does with those.

Battered by chance, Arsenal were holed beneath the water-line by sheer class. A thunderous free-kick from Cristiano Ronaldo effectively ended this contest after just eleven minutes. You don't have to offer anything to Manchester United twice. Against any other club, perhaps Arsenal could have recovered, but not here. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were at their best, dropping into just the right places to frustrate Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott as they tried to find space. Edwin van der Sar snatched every cross and every corner out of the air as if he was test-driving a new-fangled pair of vacuum gloves. With Darren Fletcher and Anderson contracting the room in front of the defence, Arsenal were slowly, but ruthlessly strangled. A wonderful third strike, converted by Ronaldo, but very much a team goal, was the signal for thousands of Arsenal fans to file out in silence.

Unless it later transpires that he was wearing ballet shoes instead of football boots, poor Gibbs cannot be blamed for the opening goal. He dropped in to cover what was actually a fairly poor pass from Cristiano Ronaldo and suddenly found himself flat on his bottom watching the ball roll past him to Ji-Sung Park. There was nothing he could do. As the United players ran away in celebration, Robin van Persie came over to put an arm round the broken-hearted youngster. Substituted at half-time, he should eventually recover from this and go on to be a first class footballer. It won't feel like that this morning though.

There will be a temptation for the Arsenal fans to accuse Ronaldo of diving to win the critical free-kick, but while it wasn't the most clear-cut of fouls, it was one of those marginal challenges that are punished as often as they are ignored. Besides, to dwell on the legitimacy of the decision is to obscure the quality of the strike. Manuel Almunia never seemed to believe that Ronaldo would dare to strike at goal from such range, let alone to hit the target with such ferocity. He has learned an important, but rather costly, lesson in dealing with the world's best footballers.

The most expensive lesson of the night though, was handed out to Fletcher, so needlessly sent off with 15 minutes remaining. Did referee Roberto Rosetti really have to take such draconian action on a player whose only crime was not being devious enough to just let Cesc Fabregas score? His devotion to duty has cost him his place in the Final. But, ironically, this is why Manchester United are the team that they are. This is why Roy Keane shrugged off his critical yellow card in 1999 and redoubled his efforts to send his team to Barcelona. This is why Manchester United are so consistently successful. Because they are trained to always, always go that little bit further. Arsene Wenger will tell you that you can't legislate for bad luck, but Ferguson will argue that you can certainly teach a team to ruthlessly take advantage of it.


Crowd -
Yellow Cards - Nasri, Adebayor, Eboue (Arsenal)
Red Cards - Fletcher (Man Utd)
Arsenal -
Manuel Almunia 6, Bacary Sagna 6, Cesc Fabregas 6, Kolo Toure 6, Samir Nasri 5, Robin van Persie 6 (Carlos Vela 6, 79th), Theo Walcott 5 (Nicklas Bendtner 5, 63rd), Alexandre Song 6, Johan Djourou 6, Emmanuel Adebayor 6, Kieran Gibbs 6 (Emmanuel Eboue 6, 45th)
Manchester United -
Edwin van der Sar 8, Patrice Evra 7 (Rafael 6, 65th), Rio Ferdinand 8, Cristiano Ronaldo 9, Anderson 7 (Ryan Giggs 7, 63rd), Wayne Rooney 9 (Dimitar Berbatov 7, 66th), Ji-Sung Park 8, Nemanja Vidic 8, Michael Carrick 7, John O'Shea 7, Darren Fletcher 8