Bellion exploits comedy of errors as United find greater reserves

Manchester United 1 - Arsenal 0
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The Independent Football

This may have been Manchester United versus Arsenal Lite but the enmity between the two clubs remains as high-tar and full-strength as an old Navy Cut cigarette.

This may have been Manchester United versus Arsenal Lite but the enmity between the two clubs remains as high-tar and full-strength as an old Navy Cut cigarette.

Hopes that a League Cup quarter-final between two sets of mostly young and thrilling footballers would avoid the nastiness that soured Arsenal's last two visits to Old Trafford disappeared in the space of a single dreadful tackle that came very near to triggering a full-scale brawl.

The attempted elbow and scathing lunge at Kieran Richardson came from Robin van Persie, a wonderful talent who won the Uefa Cup with Feyenoord while still a teenager, but who remains a dangerously volatile personality. Richardson retaliated in kind and within seconds red and blue shirts were squaring up to each other in the manner of their graceless elders. Perhaps wisely and maybe fearful of unnecessary controversy, the referee, Mark Halsey, failed to dismiss either man.

Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed "you would have to buy a ticket" to see whether he shook Arsène Wenger's hand afterwards and your money got you the briefest contact of flesh on flesh after the final whistle. Otherwise, the most hyped and most watched reserve fixture in the history of English football failed to live up to its swollen expectations.

Few of Arsène Wenger's eclectically assembled youngsters blossomed and the one shot on target Arsenal managed came courtesy of a free-kick from Jermaine Pennant, who has had long enough to prove his potential.

That more than 67,000 came to Old Trafford is testament to the pull this fixture now has on the wider public. It was ironic that the goal which decided the match and gave Ferguson the rare satisfaction of at least two victories over Arsenal in a single season came in the opening minute, when many spectators were still stuck in traffic jams on the M60.

The difference in resources available to both managers was evident in the line-ups. While Wenger fielded what he hoped might be the future of the club, Ferguson paraded eight full internationals, some of them very questionable buys.

David Bellion has not had the disdain from supporters handed out to Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba but with four specialist strikers obviously ahead of him, the Frenchman must wonder what he is doing at Old Trafford. This was, however, his fifth goal of the season - a remarkable return given his lack of opportunities - and also the quickest.

"Everyone was hungry - so it was like a fight, a battle," Bellion said. "My goal was good for confidence and we kept the result - this was a positive thing.

"I was happy for the team. It was a good opportunity for the youngsters and people who haven't played too many games to impress the manager and get a place in the first team."

From the start, Arsenal looked nervous and before 20 seconds were up, Manchester United had broken through. It began with a slip by Johan Djourou - a typical example of Wenger's youth policy in that he seconds were up, Manchester United had broken through. It began with a slip by Johan Djorou, a typical example of Wenger's youth policy in that he is a naturalised Swiss born in the Ivory Coast, which presented the ball to Bellion's feet.

Bellion was raised in the same academy that produced Thierry Henry and their chief similarity is extreme pace. Neither of the two central defenders came anywhere near closing him down but the shot, when it came, was a speculative one. It travelled at no great pace towards Manuel Almunia, who somehow allowed it to roll off his knee and into the net.

At 27, Almunia was the oldest member of Wenger's side and, at £500,000 from Celta Vigo, one of the most expensive. The Spaniard is a talent, as he proved with a fine reaction save to deny a venomous volley from Richardson, but this served to cast a shadow over his team from which they never really recovered.

Arsenal, as they had when playing Manchester City two rounds earlier in the Carling Cup, improved as the match wore on, although had Van Persie managed to dispossess Tim Howard who was, rather unwisely, attempting to dribble round the Dutchman, they would have levelled before the interval. However, if Wenger intended to use the break to calm his players, he failed. A minute after the restart came Van Persie's lunge and all the wounds of the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry, some of which have barely scabbed over, were ripped open.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Howard; P Neville, Brown, O'Shea, Fortune; Eagles (Rossi, 78), Miller, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson (Jones, 78), Richardson; Bellion. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), Pique, Ebanks-Blake.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Hoyte, Djourou, Senderos, Clichy (Karbassiyoon, 81); Pennant, Flamini, Larsson (Cregg, 72), Owusu-Abeyie; Lupoli (Smith, 68), Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Simek, Wright.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

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