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Inspired van der Sar denies Arsenal as ruthless United reach semis

Manchester United 2 Arsenal 0

For all their possession (60%) and goal attempts (20), Arsenal were unable to breach Manchester United‘s defence as they found Edwin van der Sar in inspired form and twice succumbed to goals where United players were first to react to rebounds. United progress to a record 27th FA Cup semi-final. Arsenal will return home down the M6 at the end of a fortnight which has seen their three-quarters of their quadruple aspirations snatched away.

Having sustained injuries to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and captain Cesc Fàbregas in the 3-1 defeat at Barcelona, Arsenal made four changes to the side that started at the Camp Nou:

Almunia

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Gibbs

Denilson – Wilshere

Diaby

Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin

They also came to Old Trafford having scored just 15 times in their previous 30 visits, including their 1-0 defeat in December.

A familiar story

Against a United line-up which featured three defenders – John O’Shea and the da Silva brothers Fabio and Rafael – in midfield, Arsenal dominated possession in the first half, but were frustrated by conceding the opening goal against the balance of play.

Van Persie had one of those days when nothing seemed to stick to his feet (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Andrey Arshavin had an early sight at goal, and Arsenal pumped several crosses into the area, but created few genuine chances of note. Although both Arshavin and Samir Nasri were bright enough on the flanks, United pressed hard in midfield to deny the visitors time and space, and Robin van Persie consistently struggled to find his usually assured first touch.

Arsenal jabbed away at United’s defence, but found the spine of van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić and Chris Smalling in top form. And it came as little surprise when United belied their lack of possession by opening the scoring in the 28th minute. Wayne Rooney lofted the ball into the area and Javier Hernández brought a fine save from Manuel Almunia with a powerful header. However, Fabio was first to the rebound and fired the ball into the roof of the net.

The visitors responded to the setback positively, Van Persie spun away from Vidić and fired in an angled shot that van der Sar pushed behind with a fingertip save. From the resultant corner, the Dutch striker headed wide. And on the stroke of half-time, Nasri saw his effort from inside the box well held by van der Sar at his near post.

Sucker punch

Arsenal nearly equalised twice within two minutes of the restart, but were denied by a van der Sar double save. Laurent Koscienly rambled forward in support of the front six and was played in by Arshavin. The defender’s attempted cross took a deflection and required a good save from the United keeper. The rebound fell straight to the Arsenal man, whose shot was stopped brilliantly by the recovering van der Sar.

United effectively clinched the game from the resultant corner as they broke at speed through Rafael, who ghosted past Kieran Gibbs a little too easily. Johan Djourou denied Hernández with a fine tackle as the ball was played across the six-yard line, but the ball broke to Rooney who headed in.

Arsenal huffed and puffed, and continued to create chances while continuing to look disjointed and lacking bite in the final third. Nasri hammered a volley from the edge of the box which van der Sar handled comfortably. Van Persie curled a shot just past the top corner. Substitute Marouane Chamakh headed one chance over, and saw another well saved. Tomáš Rosický’s pile-driver forced another significant intervention from the 40-year old keeper.

A dislocated right shoulder has ruled Djourou out for the rest of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But United, largely content to sit back and soak up pressure, were dangerous on the counter-attack too. Ryan Giggs came off the bench and nearly scored with virtually his first touch, only for Jack Wilshere to nip in and steal the ball off his foot. And, with ten minutes left, Djourou had to make another smart interception to deny Hernández. The ball deflected off the Swiss defender and Almunia somehow managed to reach back as he fell and claw the ball away. Djourou tangled awkwardly with Bacary Sagna as he went down, and after several minutes of treatment was stretchered off with a dislocated shoulder which will keep him out for the rest of the season.

And that, despite eight minutes of injury time, was pretty much it. There was still enough time for late arrival Paul Scholes to pick up a yellow card for a reckless tackle and escape a second for an equally bad one, but the body language of many of the Arsenal players betrayed the fact that they knew the game was up. Having been in four competitions two weeks ago, their options are now limited to their pursuit of United for the Premier League title.

Post-match reaction & analysis

A bitterly disappointed Arsène Wenger summed up the game afterwards:

Manchester United had very few chances, they scored with almost their first attempt on goal. After that, we put them in a position they like to be [in] – on the counter attack. They are strong and they are clinical in front of goal. In the second half we had a good opportunity to come back to 1-1 and two minutes later it was 2-0.

We have to keep going, support each other and come back strong.

However, he still believes Arsenal can win the Premier League title:

I believe that we can do it. It is a good test for us now, to show that we can regroup, show our mental strength and respond quickly. We have a week without a midweek game, that is the first time for a long time. Unfortunately, we lost Johan Djourou for the rest of the season. It will be difficult. We have a good opportunity to show that we are solid.

It will strengthen our resolve at home. The Manchester United game [in the Premier League] is only important if we win our games before that. I am convinced that if that game is decisive, we have a good chance to do it at home. Before that, it’s important we respond very quickly. We go to West Brom on Saturday, we will see the first signs of how we recover.

It says a lot about how this game panned out that Edwin van der Sar was man of the match and Manuel Almunia was arguably Arsenal’s biggest contributor. The entire team appeared to lack confidence going forwards, with a real lack of creative and physical bite in the middle of the park. Denilson and Abou Diaby contributed little to the attacking effort, putting too much on Wilshere’s shoulders. The young Englishman did have a good game, always looking for the incisive ball and chasing tirelessly forwards and backwards right to the bitter end.

Van Persie had a poor game by his recent standards, with his ball-control deserting him. Arshavin and Nasri both had bright moments prompting many of Arsenal’s best moves. Chamakh and Rosický failed to provide additional impetus off the bench, but it was gratifying to see Aaron Ramsey make his first-team return after a year’s absence.

Almunia again had a good game and was blameless on both United goals. Gibbs, however, had a stinker defensively, and for much of this season has looked a shadow of the prospect who many fans were clamouring to take over from Gaël Clichy at left back.

Generally speaking Arsenal were out-fought and out-thought by a makeshift United side who were far more ruthless with far fewer chances. Defeat here will have done nothing to improve the team’s confidence – although in most respects this was a much improved performance compared with December’s tame loss – but it is the injury to Djourou which potentially had the more damaging impact on their title prospects.

Regardless, they will need to pick themselves up ahead of next Saturday’s visit to West Bromwich Albion. Unlikely though it seems right now with their current form and injury list, the fate of the title sits firmly within their control. They know what needs to be done. Whether they have the wherewithal to actually do it remains to be seen.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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