Football: A draining experience, but a memorable one

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The Independent Online
I RAN TO the newsagent early on Thursday morning. The FA Cup semi- final replay between Arsenal and Manchester United at Villa Park the night before had so gripped my imagination I wanted to read all about it as soon as possible.

The teams' fortunes fluctuated wildly as the match ebbed and flowed. The pace was intense, the tension unrelenting and the drama unremitting.

First United threatened to take control after David Beckham's wonderful strike past David Seaman. Chances were squandered by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jesper Blomqvist. Then the match swung towards Arsenal. Dennis Bergkamp earned the good fortune to see his shot wickedly deflected off Jaap Stam into Peter Schmeichel's net, Roy Keane's over-exuberance brought him another sending off, and United found themselves on the ropes. But, after Schmeichel saved Bergkamp's penalty, Arsenal could not make their numerical advantage tell in extra time, and Ryan Giggs stunned the Gunners with his virtuoso goal to clinch another Wembley appearance for United.

Schmeichel, as so often, was a colossus. He, more than any other player, even Eric Cantona, has been the kingpin of Alex Ferguson's success. Very rarely has the giant Dane made costly errors.

Having used his three substitutes, would Ferguson really have put Paul Scholes in goal if Schmeichel's groin injury in extra time had forced him to come off? I would love to have seen Scholes defending corners against Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Steve Bould!

Teddy Sheringham, keen to make a point, played an absolutely exceptional 75 minutes until the loss of Keane forced his substitution by Scholes. His first touch was supreme, his vision acute and his ability to find space superb. For the last five seasons or so, he above any other English player has shown how to link forward play seamlessly. If only Sheringham had possessed an initial burst of pace to go with his intuitive football brain.

Everywhere you looked, there were huge characters engaging in fierce, yet for the most part fair, and honest tussles. Martin Keown thoughtfully patrolled the Gunners' back line, then laid the ball off to his midfielders. Tony Adams was serenely calm and confident, he even found time to join in Arsenal's attempts for a winning goal.

Jaap Stam was the forward-most United player on one occasion as he led them out of defence. Having been cautioned earlier, the craggy Dutchman trod a disciplinary tightrope as he repeatedly jousted with Bergkamp, who had to drop deep to find space later.

The gritty Nigel Winterburn worked hard to subdue Beckham, who had to check his own challenges, having been cautioned in the first half for a careless late tackle.

Gary Neville had suffered one or two lapses in recent matches. On Wednesday he played himself out of his sticky patch with courage, skill and determination.

In the middle of the field, Emmanuel Petit returned to join Patrick Vieira in a hotly-contested battle with Nicky Butt and Keane, as Ray Parlour threatened down the right flank.

Keane, now captain, follows in the long tradition of United's talented but fiery hotheads. Like Denis Law, Nobby Stiles, George Best and Cantona before him, the Irishman has tried to curb his recklessness. However, the heat of the struggle again proved too much for him on Wednesday night. A late challenge on Bergkamp produced a yellow card; he told the Dutchman to get up. Then he felled substitute Marc Overmars and did not wait for the red card before turning towards the nearby tunnel.

I doubt if there is malice in his make-up; he simply needs to win so much. Yet, after his magnificent strike was disallowed in the first game, he was generous in his post- match comments, saying that it was all part of the game and that United must simply win the replay.

There was no stronger personality on the pitch than referee David Elleray, who gave a magnificent display of unflustered, sensitive control and impeccable judgement as the tackles flew in. Quite amazingly he also managed to play the advantage clause, most tellingly when allowing play to proceed to the move's conclusion before cautioning Keown for a late tackle deep in the United half. Had Mr Elleray been a professional, he would have been at the top of his profession last Wednesday night.

There was a similar disallowed offside "goal" by Nicolas Anelka to the effort Keane had chalked off in the first game. It takes much longer to narrate the circumstances governing "active" and "passive" offside decisions than it does to reach those instantaneous judgements.

Giggs' fantastic winner was a goal fit to win a World Cup final, let alone the last FA semi-final replay. The country's meanest defence were left chasing shadows before the Welsh winger's fierce left-footer left David Seaman no chance. Exhilarating stuff. I was drained.