Manchester United 1 Arsenal 2: This was a decisive victory for Arsenal and their manager Arsene Wenger

ANALYSIS: A long wait, but revenge tastes sweet for Arsene Wenger, writes Tim Rich

“I can still hear the shouts of their team,” said Arsène Wenger, reflecting on the epic 1999 semi-final Ryan Giggs had snatched for Manchester United. “They could not believe they had won.”

When, at the end of the season, the Arsenal manager closes his eyes and reflects on the nine long months just gone, he will still be able to hear the voices of the 9,000 who had travelled from London for what might prove a turning point for their club.

Most remained long after the final whistle, chanting in Old Trafford’s vast empty space. There was a time, between 2001 and 2005, when Arsenal reached every FA Cup final bar one – and then they were beaten in the semi-final by Manchester United.

In the years that followed, as Wenger admitted, his focus shifted elsewhere, to the broad, lost horizons of Europe, and the FA Cup ceased to  matter that much. Now it  matters very much.

Arsenal’s fans had last tasted victory at Old Trafford in September 2006. Then, Wenger was still coming to terms with defeat in the European Cup final in Paris and Thierry Henry had made his ill-advised decision to remain at the Emirates another season. They did not know it but the period of slow decline was upon them, a period that would see them regularly beaten at Old Trafford. In the context of the season and in terms of their recent history, this was a decisive victory  for Arsenal and for their  manager.

 

In David De Gea, their player of what is proving to be a deadening season, Manchester United possessed the better goalkeeper and any team in the world would want Wayne Rooney when he is used in his natural position as a centre-forward. Otherwise, Arsenal had nine better footballers than their opponents.

That has not always been enough. Last year’s victory in the FA Cup final that put an end to nine trophyless years was supposed to have reinvigorated Wenger’s team but, if you examined their route to Wembley, it was still the same old Arsenal.

They beat Tottenham,  Liverpool and Everton and then, when the old pot beckoned, they stumbled horribly in the semi-final against Wigan and went two goals down to Hull within eight minutes of the final kicking off.

They came into this tie  having won 10 of their last dozen matches. The two that Arsenal had lost were, naturally, the most important ones – to Tottenham and Monaco to squander yet another chance of the European Cup.

Even when Angel Di Maria’s blatant piece of play-acting triggered his dismissal, you wondered if Arsenal would see it out. Wenger, patrolling the touchline from where he has seen his side concede six and eight goals against Manchester United, looked agitated when the board indicated five minutes of stoppage time. He looked slightly concerned when Alexis Sanchez missed a gaping opportunity when those minutes had whittled down to 90 seconds. He need not have worried.

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Angel Di Maria is shown the red card

 

Louis van Gaal did not leave his bench at all, handing over the touchline duties to his assistant, the man whose goal at Villa Park had so haunted Wenger in the build-up to this quarter-final.

It seems strange, given the humiliations he has suffered on this ground but Wenger enjoyed one of his finest moments at Old Trafford; the May night in 2002 he won his second Premier League title. Then, Arsenal wore gold shirts as they celebrated Sylvain Wiltord’s winner. Here they wore the blue shirts in which they were humbled 8-2, one of what Wenger calls “the scars in your heart” they have suffered at Old Trafford.

In 2002, Arsenal’s back four was: Lauren, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Ashley Cole. They may not, as Per Mertesacker can, boast a World Cup winner’s medal, but they probably would not have allowed Rooney the space to meet Di Maria’s superlative cross. The header was unstoppable but the question was whether Rooney should have been given a dual carriageway’s worth of space in which to make his run. For the third consecutive time in the FA Cup, Rooney had scored against Arsenal. This time, however, it was not decisive.

The night was important for other reasons. The balance of power in English football may have shifted to another part of Manchester and another part of London but Manchester City v Chelsea will never possess the history or the intensity of this fixture.

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Hector Bellerin celebrates with Danny Welbeck

 

As Arsenal were bypassed by the oligarch money that flowed into Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson and his lieutenants would fall into nostalgic talk of the days when this fixture decided championships; when Roy Keane faced down Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury and when, eyes bulging, Keown taunted Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The prize is no longer the Premier League but the FA Cup, although this game mattered as if the time of Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich had never been. After a weekend of goalless draws and pitch invasions, it was a night on which the FA Cup itself came alive.

It was a night when Arsenal confronted the many ghosts they have left behind at Old Trafford and the traits that have been part of their character since men like Vieira and Keown took their leave of the club.

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