James Lawton: Beautiful ideals again fall victim on the altar of rivals' hard ambition

Wenger's toughest critics are now saying that this isn't so much a bad run as a statement of terminal failure. Who can say they do not have the most wounding evidence

Say what you like about the Old Trafford agitator-in-chief. Call him cantankerous and self-serving. Throw in, too, that there have been times this season when his team have looked so far past their sell-by date that the top place in the Premier League has appeared less an achievement than a rebuke to all challengers.

But when you've done all of that, where does it leave Sir Alex Ferguson's closest rival, Arsène Wenger?

Crushed, you have to say, by the latest evidence that, while he continues to search with ever-increasing desperation for a hard edge to some often beautiful football, his greatest rival retains an astonishing ability to redraw his football horizons even in the most unpromising circumstances.

When you look at it this way, United's FA Cup sixth-round defeat of Arsenal assumed a significance out of all proportion to the winning side merely securing a berth in the semi-finals of a tournament that all the leading clubs long ago designated as a trophy of convenience rather than need.

This was an important litmus test for both state-of-mind and credibility and Ferguson won in a way that breathes fresh importance into the extraordinary fact he continues to fight on three fronts: leading the league, with the possibility of a Double, and a chance of a Champions League quarter-final place that was sharply enhanced by the injection of morale against Arsenal.

There is another reason for United optimism. It is that, at last, Wayne Rooney is looking more than a little like Wayne Rooney.

This, surely, is where you start and finish with the bonuses of a performance from a team which, when announced, resembled a skeletal parody of the club's old deep-running strength.

The subsequent choreography may not have quite matched anything dreamed up by the late Michael Jackson but, compared to recent performances in Marseilles, Stamford Bridge and Anfield, it was filled with life, even vibrancy.

Nemanja Vidic brought back all his strengths. Beside him Chris Smalling produced another superb performance, the Da Silva brothers played with a wonderful relish and optimism and Antonio Valencia's resurrection in the second half was filled with promise.

All of that was an unexpectedly lively and competitive cocktail stirred from a no-hope teamsheet, but it was Rooney who was the revelation.

His relations with his boss are reported to be still on the south side of amiable but if there is any substance to the suggestion that he may be on the move in the summer it will, if Saturday's form is maintained, be as something other than a glum excuse for the player who tore through most of last season.

Rooney's superb football intelligence and technique marked both United's goals. First, he intervened in the rampaging attack of the boys from Brazil with a perfectly flighted cross that Javier Hernandez met so well an inspired Manuel Almunia could only push the header into the path of Fabio.

Then Rooney put the game beyond Arsenal with a flick of his head from an acute angle. It was a goal of fine judgement and nerve, and it said that Rooney was once again in charge of himself – at least on the field.

There was one fleeting cameo of the manager and the player on the touchline, an earnest Ferguson and a Rooney swigging at a water bottle and smiling broadly, perhaps at the rediscovery of the possibilities of fresh plunder.

The chances of such a relaxed interchange between Wenger and his players were doomed from the moment it became clear that Ferguson's decision to field seven specialist defenders, with John O'Shea and Darron Gibson in the midfield, did not exclude the ambition to launch seriously attacking football.

Wenger's despair is now excruciating. He couldn't complain of any lack of effort in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Robin van Persie at various times all announced their formidable credentials but they never threatened to dislodge United's conviction.

The Arsenal manager insisted that his team had matured competitively before three crucial tests of their ability to transform six years of varying levels of potential into the hard coinage of authentic achievement. Yet in two weeks they have had three of four possible prizes swept from their grasp.

Wenger's toughest critics are now saying that this isn't so much a bad run as a statement of terminal failure, and who can say they do not have the most wounding evidence?

Certainly, Arsenal are yet again impaled on a special dilemma. It takes extremely refined nerve and a unique degree of detachment from the imperatives of today's football to keep on saying that it is enough to play lovely football in a fine stadium and on the back of an exemplary business model.

But how much of self-satisfaction would be happily exchanged by Arsenal fans at Old Trafford for the sense that they had a team infused with the same degree of that conviction which had so plainly returned to United at such a pivotal moment in the season?

In so many ways, Arsenal are an example to the rest of football. It is the club that pays its way and refuses to be deflected from the ultimate priority of playing superior football.

But then, when does such idealism founder against harder teams, harder ambitions? When does the promise of a Wilshere or an Aaron Ramsey become too much of an old and unfulfilling story? For how long can you mortgage the future?

If you wanted to pick a random time for such an appraisal, last Saturday night at Old Trafford would have done well enough. Yet again, some of Arsenal's football was as thrilling as any fan could want – but once more it ran through his fingers.

Nor does it help that it is United, upright at the bar again, who have to be disposed of in the last chance saloon of the Premier League. It is just too easy to imagine more smoke for Arsenal – and more tears.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit