Football: Both sides need to polish shooting boots

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The Independent Online
Ken Jones

IF COMPARISON tends to come down romantically in favour of the great Manchester United team that included such notable virtuosos of the game as George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, things back then were not always as older supporters like to imagine.

Seeing another old United hero from that era, Pat Crerand, at Villa Park yesterday took me back 36 years to April 1963, when they reached the FA Cup final by defeating Southampton 1-0 at the same stadium.

Played on a barren, uneven surface and settled by a Law toe-poke, it was a poor match in keeping with the struggle United were then having to avoid relegation from the old First Division.

Many changes have occurred in English football since then but it is still rare to attend an FA Cup semi-final that lives up to expectations.

The big disappointment yesterday was that neither team could fulfil their attacking potential.

In United's case this was due to turning up without what old-time football correspondents used to call "shooting boots".

No matter how far the game advances tactically, the fundamentals will always apply - especially when it comes to taking clear-cut chances.

The best of them fell to United but both Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke (playing on the ground when he first came to prominence), prolific scorers this season, were guilty of weak finishing that made David Seaman's job easy every time his goal was seriously threatened.

Unquestionably, United should have won. They had a clear edge in midfield, where Roy Keane was outstanding, the better attacking ideas, and in Jaap Stam the best player on the field.

Errors made when turning out for the Netherlands in last summer's World Cup finals, and the discomfort the team's gambling policy caused him, suggested to some observers that Stam was not worth the many millions that United had paid for him.

In fact, Stam has proved to be a great acquisition, a contender for Footballer of the Year, and his work yesterday was again exemplary.

By contrast Stam's compatriots in the Arsenal team, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, made only peripheral contributions.

Shaken up by a tackle for which Gary Neville was booked after only two minutes, Overmars never got into his stride and eventually gave way to Fredrik Ljungberg.

If United end up on the wrong end of things after Wednesday's replay, they will doubtless look back angrily on the controversial offside decision that ruled out Keane's scoring effort in the first half.

It is probable that the linesman who ruled against Yorke anticipated a centre from Ryan Giggs when instead the Welshman pushed the ball beyond Arsenal's right flank and spurted after it to lay on the opportunity that Keane drove into the roof of Arsenal's net.

Since it seemed by then that one goal would settle it, and they had the measure of Arsenal's attackers, United's frustration was understandable.

Arsenal's best moments came when they were able to free Nicolas Anelka and Bergkamp before United could push up and clamp down on them, but Stam was equal to the threat of Anelka's pace and in any case the final pass was usually poor.

It was thought before the game that the effect of United's efforts, physical and psychological, in the European Cup against Juventus last week would work against them but, with numerical advantage in extra time when Nelson Vivas was sent off for his second yellow card, they finished the stronger.

However you look at games like this, by which I mean those that bring the most powerful clubs into conflict, they are invariably settled by moments of individual inspiration.

As neither team wanted the added commitment of an extra game at this stage of the season they were not short of ambition, but the fact that there was never a moment in which Seaman and Peter Schmeichel had to produce any acrobatics indicates that some sharpening up will be needed before Wednesday.