Manchester United, beaten at the death when the FA Cup final returned to Wembley last May, appear to have every chance of returning there in three months' time after taking advantage of a depleted Arsenal line-up to achieve an emphatic victory over their old rivals yesterday evening.
Last weekend's wretched performance at home to Manchester City, which allowed Arsenal the opportunity to sneak five points ahead in the Premier League, was forgotten by the home majority in a capacity crowd, though not the visiting contingent, who chanted: "We'll be back to win the League."
That key confrontation takes place in April and means more these days, alas, than the FA Cup, as does the Champions' League, for which half a dozen players were rested here.
The United understudies responded much the better, with Nani, Darren Fletcher and Anderson all outstanding, dominating a midfield battleground in which Arsenal badly missed Mathieu Flamini, who was left sitting in the padded dug-out seats with Emmanuel Adebayor and Gaël Clichy until Emmanuel Eboué had been sent off and the game was beyond them. Meanwhile, their attack lacked the all-round threat that Adebayor, scorer of the winning goal at Old Trafford last season, would have provided and in Clichy's absence the two full-backs were given a torrid time.
So the home side had the best of both worlds in resting Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs for their trip to Lyon at the same time as achieving a victory that Tevez believes will give them a psychological advantage in the chase for the title.
Arsène Wenger's selection was admittedly complicated by an untimely crop of injuries four days before meeting Milan at the Emirates. After various fitness tests, the list of first-choice absentees comprised Manuel Almunia, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie, while Bacary Sagna has a family problem to attend to. Wenger also claimed that none of his substitutes was fit, though Adebayor and Flamini will almost certainly return in midweek. "The only consolation I can see is that we don't have any more injuries than before the game," he said. "We need to pick ourselves up quickly."
He was unhappy with the quality of the pitch – "a disgrace" – while admitting: "The groundsman was at the level of our players today."
Where Arsenal were at full strength was in the centre of defence with William Gallas and Kolo Touré, so it was all the more surprising that they should concede two headed goals in the opening 20 minutes, followed by a third down the middle before half-time.
Nani was instrumental in all three. In the 16th minute he took a corner from the left that was nudged out only as far as Anderson, who headed back into the six-yard area for Wayne Rooney to nod in with Justin Hoyte caught on the wrong side of him.
Only four minutes later, Fletcher, who makes a habit of excelling against Arsenal, began a move that sent Nani away down the left and arrived to meet the resulting cross almost simultaneously with Gallas. He will want to claim the goal.
Arsenal managed little more than a volley by Alexander Hleb before conceding again. This time Nani drifted into the centre and his perfect first touch as Michael Carrick's pass dropped over Gallas's head took him past Armand Traoré to score.
The normal feistiness of these meetings had been absent but it soon made an appearance after half-time. Eduardo da Silva and Rio Ferdinand were both booked for bad challenges and in between times came Eboué's dismissal for a wild lunge that caught Patrice Evra in the midriff. "Harsh," Wenger felt.
There could only be one result after that. Three times Jens Lehmann denied Rooney and Louis Saha might have added more goals to outdo the 6-1 drubbing of Arsenal here in February 2001. "A fantastic performance," Ferguson said. Devalued competition or not, he will remember his 100th FA Cup tie.Reuse content