James Lawton: A putrid performance at Theatre of Dreams

Arsenal's abject capitulation at Old Trafford on Saturday demonstrated the diminished status of the FA Cup and the sad truth that the top teams' priorities now lie elsewhere
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The Independent Online

You may never hear a breath of it in Barnsley, where no doubt victory at Anfield has already been placed alongside the legend of Skinner Normanton, but this was a terrible weekend for the FA Cup.

To understand quite how dispiriting it was, you had to be here at the Theatre of Dreams witnessing the nightmare of Arsenal's statement of shocking indifference to their fate in football's oldest knockout competition.

Barnsley were aided, they would surely admit at no cost to the splendour of their performance, by Rafa Benitez's decision to stand down Fernando Torres and keep Steven Gerrard on the bench for 75 minutes, but such thinking, especially by the Liverpool manager on the eve of Champions League action, could only be seen as routine. What was so gut-wrenching here was not just the performance but the demeanour of the team that leads the Premier League by five points. The performance was putrid.

The demeanour was sickening.

Arsène Wenger is said to love the FA Cup and it is a contention supported by his club's outstanding record in the competition. But, as feared, it was love for sale.

As in the cases of Torres and Gerrard at Anfield, there was no great surprise in Arsenal's omission of such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini, especially when it was reported that both had hamstring problems that would make 90-minute stints too perilous before the midweek Champions League collision with Milan. But then we have long known the true status of the FA Cup as the second most disposable glory in domestic football. What couldn't be anticipated was that Arsenal would trail out of the competition they have won 10 times so spinelessly, so disagreeably.

Wenger even had the gall to criticise the showboating of Nani. In normal circumstances, you might have agreed with him. Taunting beaten opponents is never the mark of outstanding competitive character, but here all judgement on the Portuguese flyer, who has yet to make anything like such a spectacular impact on more strenuously contested games, has to be suspended. Arsenal, frankly, deserved everything they received in the way of disrespect. If you make a mockery of a game, if you are indolent to this degree, there is no option but simply to take your punishment. When William Gallas kicked Nani it was not a sign of offended dignity. It was just another abandonment of professional values.

Perhaps it needs to be said that United were unrecognisable in all but one way from the team that played so abysmally against Manchester City the previous weekend. Wayne Rooney, absent against City, was wonderfully committed – as he was when the admiring Fabio Capello first saw him against Aston Villa in an earlier round which he overwhelmed utterly when sent on for the last 20 minutes – and there were fine performances from Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick as well as the gallery-titillating Nani. However, what also separated the teams, including the United one that was so frustrating against City, was that one plainly cared, the other didn't.

If Arsenal had been racehorses rather than nominal football stars, they would surely have provoked a stewards' inquiry.

United had reason to congratulate themselves on all but the fallacy that they had achieved some kind of psychological victory for when they resume the challenge of hauling back Arsenal's five-point lead.

The fact is that the wound to the prestige of the old Cup went so deep precisely because such a notion was so patently absurd. You can only score a psychological victory if you are competing with a rival psyche. Arsenal didn't bring anything to Old Trafford but a sullen admission that they could not have cared less.

In such a situation a team like Arsenal do not nurse their wounds. They pride themselves on being aware of a deeper reality. On this occasion it was the belief that when they return to Old Trafford in pursuit of three points they will be as geared for well-drilled action as they were when last on Premier League action here, when Adebayor scored a killing goal as Arsenal completed a leg of their double over the prospective champions. This time he earned a yellow card for a clownishly obvious dive.

Gilberto Silva was as incensed as Gallas by the arrogant keep-ball of Nani, but then how did this World Cup-winner square that indignation with his own dismal failure to engender a degree of self-respect among young team-mates? It was just one of a dozen regrets. Cesc Fabregas was wayward to the point of insult to anyone who had attached any importance to the game and if Alexander Hleb, such a force in Arsenal's remarkable transformation this season, had displayed any less interest in proceedings he would surely have taken a nap.

Wenger, of course, was quite calm. He thought the dismissal of Emmanuel Eboué, for flying into Patrice Evra with a raised boot, was possibly harsh but he really didn't see the incident well enough to pass judgement. He was not angry about the performance. Sometimes it is like that, don't you know?

The other team jump into the lead and whatever you do turns to dust.

But then who will care if Arsenal, so untaxed by their labours in this game, spring back with their old touch in the Champions League and in their pursuit of the Premier League title they have made a claim on with some consistently brilliant football? Perhaps only those who see in the brave achievements of a Barnsley, or a Bristol Rovers, the seeds of revived FA Cup glory. It's a pretty idea but long before Arsenal's surrender was final it had been pummelled near to death.

It had also to be remembered that United, the masters of the day so serenely on course for their 12th success, delivered their own devastating blow eight years ago when they refused to defend the FA Cup. However, they were honest enough to fly off to Brazil to play teams from Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Australia and Mexico. Arsenal's refusal to play was only slightly more subtle.

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