A third Champions League trophy is within his grasp, but Sir Alex Ferguson's joy was tempered by what he described as the "tragedy" of Darren Fletcher missing the final in Rome on 27 May after a night which Arsène Wenger described as the most disappointing of his 25 years in management.
Fletcher's red card for what looked like a fair 75th-minute challenge on Cesc Fabregas is unlikely to be rescinded and his manager did what little he could to console the midfielder. "He's really disappointed, and he is entitled to be," Ferguson said. "He's one of the most honest players in the game and for him to miss the final will be a tragedy." But the most substantial grief, on a night when Cristiano Ronaldo mesmerised Arsenal's defence in a centre-forward's role, belonged to Wenger. The 3-1 defeat to United ends Arsenal's season – and in a manner which reveals the mountain he has to climb to reach the highest level in European football. "It's the most disappointing night," the Frenchman said. "To disappoint those people [the fans], who were behind the team so much, really hurts. We were caught by a team who have the art to kill you and take advantage of every mistake you make."
Arsenal's night was over in the 11 minutes it took United to score twice, through Ji-sung Park, capitalising on a slip by Kieran Gibbs, and Ronaldo, dispatching a 41-yard free kick. After the second goal a bottle thrown from the crowd appeared to hit Nemanja Vidic. Ronaldo's performance was extraordinary, even by his own standards. "We didn't feel we played the semi-final because we were out of it in 10 minutes. That's the most difficult thing to swallow," reflected Wenger, whose side's inferiority was underlined by the masterful seven-touch, box-to-box move which saw Ronaldo sweep in an imperious third on 61 minutes. "We can only look at ourselves. It's very, very disappointing to fight such a long way and give the game away as we did."
Ferguson declared that Fletcher's dismissal could not be appealed and the only way of it being rescinded is the Italian referee Roberto Rosetti informing Uefa that he made an error, though there was uncertainty last night as to whether even that could prevent the player, an unused substitute in last year's final in Moscow, experiencing the same ordeal that United's Roy Keane and Paul Scholes went through in 1999.
Fletcher appeared to get the heel of his boot to the ball which had been spun into Fabregas' path by Robin van Persie. "You can see the ball move in a different direction and angle from Cesc Fabregas," Ferguson said. "The terrible thing is that we can't appeal. Mr Rosetti is probably one of the best referees in Europe. He may look at it and come to his own view, but there's nothing we can do about it. I couldn't tell you whether he would have definitely played in the final but you would have thought that Darren would have figured largely." Ferguson has expressed his respect for the referee before and said he had not discussed the incident with him. "Out of respect to the referee, I wouldn't do that. He may look at himself without anyone asking but I don't think we should ask him. He's competent and fair enough to look at it himself, possibly."
Even Wenger admitted that he thought the decision, which allowed Van Persie to dispatch the 76th penalty for a 4-1 aggregate score, was "harsh" and it contributed to his view that Rosetti, a hospital manager from Turin, had "a bad game".
The Arsenal manager did not send out Gibbs for the second half after the 8th-minute error which will haunt the 19-year-old Londoner. "We don't want to blame anyone. Things are like that," he said.
Ferguson believes that Chelsea will overcome Barcelona at Stamford Bridge tonight, with the key factor being the absence of experienced defenders Carles Puyol, who is suspended, and Rafael Marquez, who is injured.
"I was drooling when I watched [Barcelona] on Saturday night [when they beat Real Madrid 6-2 at the Bernabeu]," Ferguson said. "But they have a centre-back problem and that may cost them. I think Chelsea will get through."