Ferguson the master with the final word

FA Cup semi-finals: United manager revels in chance to teach 'Le Professeur' a lesson again
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The Independent Football

This time there was not one handshake but two. Both belonged to Sir Alex Ferguson. Before kick-off and he sought out Arsène Wenger; at the end it was the Arsenal manager forcing himself to reach out to his opponent. The ghosts of 1999 - and that FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United - had returned. To haunt and taunt. Maybe it was the decision to house the United support in the Trinity Road stand, directly behind the dug-outs, maybe it was the sheer pressure of it all, maybe it was mental and physical fatigue. Maybe it was just one of those days. Maybe the seismic shift in English football had just discovered a fault line.

This time there was not one handshake but two. Both belonged to Sir Alex Ferguson. Before kick-off and he sought out Arsène Wenger; at the end it was the Arsenal manager forcing himself to reach out to his opponent. The ghosts of 1999 - and that FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United - had returned. To haunt and taunt. Maybe it was the decision to house the United support in the Trinity Road stand, directly behind the dug-outs, maybe it was the sheer pressure of it all, maybe it was mental and physical fatigue. Maybe it was just one of those days. Maybe the seismic shift in English football had just discovered a fault line.

But from the moment Wenger walked, stiffly, along the touchline, head down, hands stuffed in his suit pockets, both he and his players appeared out-of-sorts; a tetchiness to their play, to his manner. His constant implorings to the fourth official, Steve Dunn, became more and more frantic as the match slipped away and the frustrations of the Arsenal players were directed at each other. Robert Pires shook his head slowly when substituted. Thierry Henry raged at every misplaced pass. Surely they will not implode now.

Ferguson marched by - clapping the crowd, shaking hands and did not stop until he had sought out Wenger, forced him to turn around and grasp his arm. Wenger appeared surprised. It set the tone. Ferguson, and United, were in control. After losing that semi-final five years ago Wenger refused to acknowledge his fiercest rival, something the United manager has remembered and used as fuel to fire his determination. He felt the slight. "He says I was not gracious in defeat?" remarked Wenger beforehand. "Maybe that's one of my weaknesses."

And Ferguson was always going to probe it. Post-match and he did an extraordinary thing. He attended a press conference. It's an irritant he doesn't usually subject himself to. But he was in control again. This time he had points to make, more goals to score than the single strike from Paul Scholes which ended Arsenal's hopes of emulating United's Treble and extended Ferguson's record to 10 domestic cup semi-finals without loss. The FA Cup, at times an after-thought, had been imbued with deep symbolism.

"Semi-finals, when you win, should be enjoyable things," he ventured, perhaps aware of how sour Wenger's reaction would be. "I think Villa Park has a terrific atmosphere on occasions like this." There were contributions to pick out. "Ronaldo? Fantastic performance." Then Darren Fletcher - "a marvellous game" - and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whose display made the absence of the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy "minimal": "His general play and his movement was top class." And finally the excellent Wes Brown. "Last Sunday at Arsenal was maybe the game that told himself that he was back," Ferguson said; and suddenly his mind was whirring over, probing more of his opponents' weaknesses. It wasn't just Brown who was back. The spring had returned to his gaffer, too. The full importance of that draw last weekend at Highbury - with United scoring late on - had dawned. "The longer the game went the better we got. Once Arsenal scored we emerged as a football team," Ferguson purred.

His lips almost smacked at the next question. How would the result affect Arsenal? Mentally he framed his response and then, with Tuesday's Champions' League quarter-final against Chelsea in mind, he presented it. "I think they've got a difficult time. I think maybe I got a bit of luck today and I think [Claudio] Ranieri is due a bit of luck, the pressure the lad's been under." Ferguson wasn't finished. "I wouldn't bet on them [Arsenal] on Tuesday night," he smiled. "Difficult game, not an easy one." Then he added: "The next week is a very, very big week for them. It had to be the least of their priorities today." Which, of course, it was.

Nevertheless he had landed a blow and tactically, also, he had out-witted Wenger to an extent that he felt confident enough to question the other's substitutions. "The Boss" against "Le Professeur" had thrown up an unexpectedly immature display by the latter who complained about the robustness of United's tackling, the damage inflicted on his players. And with a curious naivety he dismissed the victor's performance thus: "They scored a good goal from Scholes but after that they just played in their half and tried to defend." Ferguson's own tactical assessment appeared more precise - he had stretched the play early, used the flanks and tried to create space for Ryan Giggs. "Our idea was to play on the right-hand side as much as we could through Ronaldo and Fletcher," he said. As for the goal, created by that triumvirate, Ferguson added: "I don't know what happened to the Arsenal defence but they left him [Giggs] free."

Finally Wenger summoned up his defiance. He will have had his own assessment of that 1999 defeat - "losing that semi-final had a great bearing on our season" - in his mind when he said: "Our priorities are the championship and Champions' League. We have four games in seven days and they are only human beings, these guys." And ones whose frailties had - finally - been exposed.

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