Gray twist to Blades' plot in Bergkamp red card mystery

Arsenal 1 - Sheffield United 1
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The Independent Football

You sensed, from the moment his doughty FA Cup warriors won through against West Ham on penalties, that Neil Warnock's kind of team may prove troublesome for Arsenal, and felt it even more strongly when you saw a Gunners team-sheet denuded of many of its inspirational characters, notably Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. And you acknowledged it as a definite possibility when Dennis Bergkamp was dismissed 36 minutes into a rumbustuous first half which defied anyone to suggest that the FA Cup was but an incidental for Arsenal, who play Bayern Munich in the Champions' League on Tuesday, or for promotion-chasing Sheffield United who may have regarded their Championship game with Plymouth Argyle as a slightly higher priority.

You sensed, from the moment his doughty FA Cup warriors won through against West Ham on penalties, that Neil Warnock's kind of team may prove troublesome for Arsenal, and felt it even more strongly when you saw a Gunners team-sheet denuded of many of its inspirational characters, notably Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. And you acknowledged it as a definite possibility when Dennis Bergkamp was dismissed 36 minutes into a rumbustuous first half which defied anyone to suggest that the FA Cup was but an incidental for Arsenal, who play Bayern Munich in the Champions' League on Tuesday, or for promotion-chasing Sheffield United who may have regarded their Championship game with Plymouth Argyle as a slightly higher priority.

There is history between these clubs, much of it controversial - remember the 1999 fifth-round tie "the game that never was" and the 2003 semi-final, won by Freddie Ljungberg's goal after Michael Tonge had collided with the referee, Graham Poll, in the build-up? - and yesterday we witnessed a third episode in which an official, on this occasion Neale Barry, was at the centre of affairs.

Warnock's pre-match protestation that a Football League referee should have been in charge rather than one who, in the manager's opinion, was too familiar with the Premiership side, left the organisers unmoved. In the event, Warnock could have few complaints. And didn't. "I thought the ref did well. He made some brave decisions." That tells its own story, coming, as it does, from a serial castigator of officials.

The sending-off of Bergkamp, which allowed United an opportunity, described by Warnock as "we'll not get a better one to go though than today", remains something resembling a mystery from Sherlock Holmes's casebook. Just whose was the gloved hand which slapped defender Danny Cullip, and why did he remove said glove after the interval?

To elaborate, the home players had reacted furiously after Cullip had appeared to have raked his studs over a prone Francesc Fabregas' head after the teenage midfielder had gone down in a challenge. Bergkamp, captain for the day, in Vieira's absence, appeared to shove Cullip twice in the chest and then pointed a finger at his chin. But it was actually the gloved hand of Jose Antonio Reyes which then slapped the player's face. However, it was Bergkamp who was dispatched by Mr Neale. Even by the strictest interpretation of the laws, it appeared a harsh decision. Mr Neale later explained that the red card had been for an initial push to the face.

The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, declared that his side would appeal against the decision, although there is also the prospect of the FA not only rescinding Bergkamp's punishment, but also bringing a charge against Reyes. In the mêlée, Kolo Touré also got involved and another hand slapped the face of Andy Liddell. "He [Bergkamp] didn't hit him. He pushed him," said Wenger. "But I was shocked by what the 32 [Cullip] did on Fabregas. There was intention. He hit him on the head. I don't like to see that." The Frenchman added: "It was a good learning process for my young players. If we'd had 11 versus 11 we would have qualified quite comfortably in the second half. Freddie Ljungberg [who took the captain's armband and led the forward line diligently in the second half] was the only really experienced player. All the rest, apart from Touré, were aged between 17 and 21." At least, to appease the little Englanders, this was not a foreigners-only Arsenal squad yesterday - substitute goalkeeper Stuart Taylor kept the St George's flag flying, albeit limply - but there were many changes to the likely starting line-up for the Munich game.

United, their luminous orange shirts giving them the appearance of stewards, marshalled Arsenal adroitly. On the break, they looked threatening, too. Lone striker Nick Montgomery should have been more productive when he won the ball from Philippe Senderos, but did not see the advancing Tonge, and the chance came to nothing. Then Andy Gray, offered an inviting chance, headed within goalkeeper Manuel Almunia's range, while Liddell hooked the ball just wide. Three minutes before the break, a Cullip flick-header from a long throw looped over Almunia. The effort was ruled out. Why? "I don't think there was anything there. I think he'll be disappointed when he watches that again," said Warnock of Mr Neale.

In the first half, there was little panache about the hosts, but they still managed to threaten Paddy Kenny's goal. The Republic of Ireland man reacted splendidly to defy Reyes and Emmanuel Eboué. Earlier, Bergkamp had been efficiently marked by Phil Jagielka, but that did not prevent him curling an effort agonisingly wide. Then came his dismissal, which provoked some mischievous challenges; Liddell and Paul Thirlwell were cautioned for United.

After the interval, the visitors threw on Simon Francis and Jonathan Forte, while Robert Pires was introduced for the Gunners. Reyes was again thwarted, twice, by Kenny. In between, Cullip was cautioned for bringing down Ljungberg.

United appeared to have been undone with 12 minutes remaining. Pires, on the edge of the box, found Mathieu Flamini, whose shot was saved. Kenny could not hold the ball, however, and Pires struck. Fabregas should have made it two, and immediately regretted he hadn't when, 48 seconds from the end of normal time, the substitute Pascal Cygan miscued a clearance and Cullip drove against Senderos's arm. Gray sent Almunia the wrong way from the spot. It gave United a money-spinning night at Bramall Lane on Tuesday week and Arsenal the replay, in this congested period, they really didn't need.

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