Football: Petit and Vieira can tilt the balance

The main beneficiaries of the FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park tonight are likely to be Chelsea. By Phil Shaw
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IN ONE dressing-room at least, the sight of Arsenal and Manchester United slugging each other into a barren, bruising stalemate, necessitating their return to Villa Park tonight to find out who will face Newcastle in next month's FA Cup final, was a cause for rejoicing.

It was not United's, where the incredulity of Alex Ferguson and his Treble- seeking side over the flag of inconvenience which ruled out a valid "goal" was compounded by the realisation that they would have to fit a sapping semi-final replay into an already congested schedule.

Nor was it Arsenal's, even if the Cup holders derived a certain satisfaction from preserving their customary clean sheet. All the more so after battling through most of extra time with only 10 men following the almost equally customary red card, incurred by Nelson Vivas.

No, the only real beneficiaries of Sunday's attritional struggle - with the arguable exception of United's European Cup semi-final opponents, Juventus - were Chelsea. Gianluca Vialli's team went out to take on Wimbledon heartened by the thought of their principal rivals for the championship being forced to go through it all over again.

While the Premiership's top two lock horns once more, in a contest which Ferguson, for one, can envisage going to 120 minutes and a penalty shoot- out, Chelsea have the chance to steal above them both at the top of the table by winning at Middlesbrough. For whoever loses at Villa Park, the psychological impact could be doubly damaging.

The United manager described the outcome of their first meeting as "a predictable result". In so far as there is little that the rival camps do not know about each other, he was probably right. Yet the Double winners have enjoyed such an unusually good record against the Old Trafford club - four victories and an away draw in the five previous meetings - that United's superiority on Sunday may have surprised even Ferguson.

The key to their dominance was the midfield axis of Nicky Butt and Roy Keane. Butt, out of favour recently, highlighted the depth of United's squad by combining his usual combativeness with some excellent distribution.

Tonight, however, promises to be a far more even duel for control. Arsene Wenger welcomes back Emmanuel Petit alongside Patrick Vieira after suspension, and his biting presence and capacity for getting between the respective penalty areas should not only ease the pressure on Tony Adams and company but provide greater attacking impetus.

Ferguson has pondered "freshening up" his line-up. The only definite change will come at left-back, where Denis Irwin has a leg injury. Phil Neville is a ready-made deputy, though if it comes down to the lottery of spot-kicks, his penalty-taking prowess is unlikely to match Irwin's.

Talking of which, Dwight Yorke's last goal at Villa Park was an audaciously chipped penalty over the diving David Seaman in what proved his final home game in the claret and blue. Such confidence typified Yorke throughout the autumn and winter but has deserted him of late. Since Seaman has now gone 673 minutes without conceding a goal, Ferguson needs the Tobagan to snap out of his spring languor as a matter of urgency.

Marc Overmars, something of a scourge to United prior to Sunday, would be a greater loss to the Gunners than Irwin to their opponents if he is indisposed by an injured ankle. The onus would then be on Dennis Bergkamp to give Nicolas Anelka stronger support. Bergkamp, though, must first escape the pocket Jaap Stam put him in.

The recent history of matches between the clubs, pitted by outbreaks of ill feeling (Ian Wright v Peter Schmeichel, Wenger v Ferguson), favours Arsenal and a repeat of last year's Wembley date with Newcastle. But while United cannot match the Tyneside club's 52-year unbeaten record in semi- finals, they have not lost in 15 such matches (eight of them at Villa Park) since the late Billy Bremner decided a three match epic in Leeds' favour 29 years ago.

It appears to be a case of the immovable object, Seaman's fabled guardians, against the irresistible force of Beckham and Giggs, Keane and Cole, but tonight, something has to give. The longer it takes, the more the victors' celebrations are likely to be echoed on Chelsea's return from Teesside.