THE SEMI-FINAL replay nobody wanted produced the game nobody will forget here last night as Manchester United drew on all their reserves of talent and spirit to earn themselves an FA Cup final place against Newcastle United on 22 May.
This was a match that had everything, but the moment which will burn most vividly in the memory was a wondrous individual goal by Ryan Giggs, 18 minutes into extra time, which finally ended the holders' grasp on the Cup.
It capped two hours of pulsating drama which included the dismissal of Roy Keane late in normal time, a penalty save, in injury time, by Peter Schmeichel, and a goal from David Beckham which, in normal company, would have earned the headlines in its own right.
There was also another disallowed goal, one to counter Keane's controversially chalked-off strike in Sunday's goalless first match. This came from Nicolas Anelka after 71 minutes, three minutes after Dennis Bergkamp had put Arsenal level.
It was Bergkamp, the man who wanted to get to Wembley because he missed Arsenal's victory there last May through injury, who missed the spot-kick.
That was cruel on Bergkamp but the goal he did score was heavily deflected, off Jaap Stam, and over the two matches United deserved a victory which puts them in their 15th FA Cup final.
They may, however, have paid a heavy price. Though they retained their top spot in the League, Chelsea only drawing at Middlesbrough last night, Keane's suspension will damage them. So might injuries picked up by Schmeichel and Giggs, and the exhaustion of playing four draining hours in four days. Juventus, like Chelsea, may profit.
With an eye on Turin, and the second leg of their European Cup semi-final next week, Ferguson left Giggs and Dwight Yorke on the bench and Andy Cole out of the squad. Given the recent form of Yorke and Cole, this was not as reckless as it might appear. Denis Irwin and Marc Overmars, injured in the first match, were on their respective benches but Emmanuel Petit returned after suspension.
The changes made little initial difference with the match - the last FA Cup semi-final replay, in future years semis will be settled on the day to ease fixture congestion - as tight as on Sunday. United, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham inventive, gradually emerged as the fresher team and, after 17 minutes, Beckham, after combining with Sheringham, curled an exquisite left-foot shot past a flat-footed David Seaman from 20 yards. It was the first goal to beat the Arsenal defence in 11 hours and 30 minutes of football dating back to Dietmar Hamann's equaliser for Newcastle United in February. For 10 minutes it seemed, like the proverbial London bus, that the long wait for a goal was going to be followed a bunch arriving together as Nicky Butt, Teddy Sheringham twice and Solskjaer all went close.
The holders' had only offered a fine dribble and snap shot by Bergkamp - well saved by Schmeichel - soon after Beckham's goal but their resilience can never be underestimated. As Petit and Patrick Vieira began to impose themselves Anelka, showing quick feet, hit the side netting and Petit brought a good save from Schmeichel.
With Keane reasserting himself after the break United wrested the midfield back, but their dominance was wasted as Solskjaer, twice, Blomqvist and Beckham missed good chances. At the other end Anelka was even more wasteful while Tony Adams, leading by example, strode forward, brushing opponents aside, only to find Stam immovable.
United brought on Giggs, Arsenal introduced Overmars. The temperature of the match, despite the unseasonably freezing night, moved up a few degrees. A goal had to come and, after 68 minutes, Arsenal got it. Bergkamp, given space 25 yards out, hit a shot which deflected off Stam past Schmeichel.
Then came Anelka's disallowed goal - a reprieve for Schmeichel who had spilled Bergkamp's shot - and the hitherto magnificent Keane's exit. Already booked for fouling Bergkamp, he mistimed a sliding tackle on Overmars. It was his second dismissal in these matches: five years ago he was sent off in the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, also at Villa Park, by the same referee. It was also the third red card in four matches between these teams this season.
United's despair seemed absolute when Phil Neville brought down Parlour in the area. Bergkamp stepped up, and Schmeichel flung himself to his left to save the penalty.
Into extra time and Schmeichel again denied Bergkamp, then, bizarrely, Ronny Johnsen, who was trying to clear a corner. Overmars shot over twice.
Enter Giggs. Seizing on a loose pass from Vieira, he ran 70 yards, evaded five tackles, then lashed the ball into the roof of the net. It was a goal in a million and Arsenal were unable to match it.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour (Kanu, 105), Vieira, Petit (Bould, 118), Ljungberg (Overmars, 61); Bergkamp, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Vivas.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Blomqvist (Giggs, 61); Solskjaer, (Yorke, 90), Sheringham (Scholes, 75). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Irwin.
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).
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