A minute or so in, after Kieran Gibbs had feinted past Ji-sung Park under an azur blue sky to set Cesc Fabregas away through midfield and when Kolo Touré had leapt to make what was to be his only clean header against Cristiano Ronaldo all night, it looked like Arsène Wenger might have had it right in the programme notes. "Sometimes you go more for experience in the top games," he wrote. "But these young players have shown they are ready to compete at the top level."
The impression did not last for long. Wenger had also provided a hint in those notes that he was looking for other ways into Europe next season than entering as reigning champions. "The qualifying round is unseeded so you could face anyone," he fretted, thinking about the third place Arsenal will need to take in the Premier League to avoid that. Perhaps he knew, deep down in his heart of hearts, that the defence he had assembled in the absence of William Gallas and Gaël Clichy wouldn't do it.
The manner of its first unravelling was an agonising and unwelcome one. Gibbs is a better individual than the one who lost his footing so horribly with Park on his shoulder, though Wenger's decision to remove him at the interval suggests that moment will live with him for the foreseeable future. But Gibbs was one among many unequals last night.
The entire Arsenal back line looked vulnerable to the succession of lofted 30-yard balls which offered United an elementary route through to goal in the first half. Individually, none of the individuals Wenger had told to enjoy the occasion looked capable of placing a tackle.
Though some of those free-kicks United were awarded in the first period looked questionable, none less than Ronaldo's which delivered the exquisite second goal, the ball was a particularly elusive thing for Alex Song, escaping him in tackle after tackle as he slithered towards Anderson, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick. Johan Djourou looked marginally more comfortable for a time and his distribution exceeded most of those in red shirts. But the painful inequality of this occasion was laid bare to Wenger in the seven-touch move it took United to rip from the edge of Arsenal's box to score their third.
Djourou, it was, who was chasing hopelessly as Ronaldo took Rooney's pass to the right channel and stroked in one of the tournament's supreme goals. The same red No 20 was trailing in behind as Park exchanged passes with Dimitar Berbatov and hammered in another effort which Manuel Almunia palmed away.
What Arsenal needed was a leader. Cesc Fabregas retreated to a deep position to help bail his side out, just like he had at Old Trafford. But as he lashed into challenges on Darren Fletcher and Ronaldo he looked destined to leave the pitch before his time, as well as, perhaps, north London before his time.
Fabregas was as unequivocal as he could have been before this game that his future lies with Arsenal but after the long night which put an end to the club's season, he may reconsider. There were few black marks for United though far worse than Fletcher's dubious dismissal was the racism directed again by their fans at the name of Patrick Vieira and his mother.
Sickening in its own right, it also conjured the memory of a player who Arsenal could have badly used here. Wenger stroked his chin, held his face in his right hand and gazed out at the empty stadium which revealed itself to him with 15 minutes to play. Ready to compete at the top level these players were not and when Wenger awakes today he will face that cold fact.Reuse content