In the programme for Saturday's semi-final Arsène Wenger said: "Unusually there is more than just qualification at stake today." He was referring to the probability that, given the other semi-final was an all-Nationwide affair, whoever won would go on to lift the trophy. The significance of events at Villa Park may, however, prove more far-reaching than that.
Had Arsenal won, and done so without incurring injury, they would have been odds-on to complete a domestic Double and strong contenders to match United's 1999 Treble. Either way, they would have finished the campaign as indisputably the best team in England. They would have approached next season with their confidence armour-plated.
Manchester United would have headed for a long summer of introspection. Questions would have been asked, about Sir Alex Ferguson in particular. Had his delayed retirement been an error? Should he have sold David Beckham? Were his summer signings ill-judged?
The future of Ryan Giggs would again have been under debate. So, too, the continuing fitness of Roy Keane's battered body. United, by their very nature, would have approached next season in defiant mood but the belief would have been brittle. A slow start - and Rio Ferdinand is not available until mid-September - would have reignited their self-doubt.
All this conjecture applied to an Arsenal victory. Instead it is United who travel to Cardiff and a probable record 11th FA Cup success. By their heady standards the season remains a disappointment but no longer a crushing one. There will still be an inquest, but it will not require a body. Indeed, it could be argued that Ferguson has coped satisfactorily with what has been a transitional season. On past evidence Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba will have more impact next season while another signing, Cristiano Ronaldo, is already looking the genuine article.
If United's victory influences next season in this manner, Wenger has only himself and his players to blame. Ferguson admitted his team's revival was rooted in their recovery at Highbury last weekend, when a series of strange substitutions, and Arsenal's tendency to ease up in matches, enabled United to inflict the first dent in Arsenal's previously impregnable aura. Both clubs thus went into this match aware that, head to head, there was little to choose between them.
"That was a turning point," Ferguson admitted. "We've had a rough time, a terrible time, with injuries and suspensions but we emerged as a team last week."
For one player, that Highbury match was especially significant. Much of United's handling of the Ferdinand affair was based on timing his ban to coincide with Wes Brown's return from injury. But after two cruciate injuries and a broken ankle Brown struggled to recapture his form, and the absence of Gary Neville and Mikaël Silvestre further exposed him, affecting his confidence.
At Highbury, the old Brown re-emerged as he kept Thierry Henry at bay. "He needed that game, it told himself he was back," Ferguson said. At Villa Park, Brown again delivered a performance that suggested he should steal a place in England's Euro 2004 squad.
With Brown restored to confidence, Silvestre returned to fitness, Gary Neville back from suspension and John O'Shea recovering from his bout of second season syndrome, United's defence looked as solid as it had with Ferdinand. Only in the early minutes was it opened up and even then, noted Ferguson, the team "had showed the confidence to take the ball".
Again, Arsenal did not help themselves. Wenger's decision to rest Henry was justifiable, they had beaten United in the Cup without him last season and Chelsea this, but replacing him with Jérémie Aliadière was unfair on the young Frenchman.
He had not played, even as a substitute, since 10 January. Wenger said he preferred him to Jose Antonio Reyes as the Spaniard, like Dennis Bergkamp, likes to come deep for the ball while Aliadière plays off the shoulder, but Aliadière was also off the pace.
That said, Arsenal should have scored twice inside five minutes. Roy Carroll, living up to his nickname, when at Hull City, of Mr Tickle, first extended his long arms to deny an early Bergkamp break, Brown clearing Bergkamp's follow-up off the line. Carroll then clawed away Kolo Touré's header after Edu's chip had hit the bar. Though Robert Pires put a free header over, and Patrick Vieira's header later grazed a post, this was as close as Arsenal were to come.
United, with five in midfield and plenty of width, gradually took control. A concerted spell of pressure stretched Arsenal, enabling Neville to find Giggs in space on the right. Paul Scholes drilled in the cross.
Though this goal was created and scored by three stalwarts the theme was youth. Brown (25), Ronaldo (19), Darren Fletcher (20) and O'Shea (22) all played key roles for United. This augured well for the future. Appropriately Ferguson celebrated with Jake, his nine-year-old grandson, at the end.
Victory maintained United's remarkable semi-final record. The last man to score a winning goal against them in an FA Cup semi-final was Billy Bremner in 1970, and even then Leeds needed two replays. United have won 11 successive FA Cup semi-finals since. At Villa Park, United are unbeaten in eight visits.
On the debit side it initially seemed as if Keane wanted to establish another record, that of the only man dismissed in three semi-finals, all at Villa Park. His hack at the back of Pires' legs was, though, the only time he overdid the physical stuff. If that warranted a booking, Scholes flirted with dismissal when he later upended Reyes. The Spaniard's pace had begun to trouble United. Again the referee, Graham Barber, was lenient. Reyes has ligament damage and is expected to be out for at least three weeks. With Freddie Ljungberg suffering a suspected broken hand and facing four weeks out, Arsenal's thin squad is in danger of being exposed.
So, too, their nerves. With 30 minutes to go, it was clear they would lose. Their rhythm upset by United's pressing and spoiling, they lost composure doing more arm-waving than clear-thinking. Wenger too. In an echo of Louis van Gaal's doomed tactics in Dublin, when the Irish knocked the Dutch out of the 2002 World Cup, he sent on forward after forward without a thought as to who would supply the ammunition.
Having suffered only their third defeat in 44 FA Cup ties Arsenal spent yesterday at their training ground, warming down physically, regrouping mentally. There remains much to play for but, for the first time this season, they have to combat internal doubts as well as external foes. "We must sleep well," said Wenger, thinking of Chelsea tomorrow.
Goal: Scholes (32) 0-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, Clichy; Ljungberg, Vieira, Edu (Kanu, 76), Pires (Reyes, 57); Bergkamp, Aliadière (Henry, 57). Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Keown.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Carroll; G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, O'Shea; Ronaldo (Bellion, 83), Fletcher, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Solskjaer (P Neville, 75). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Butt, Djemba-Djemba.
Referee: G Barber (Tring).
Bookings: Arsenal: Pires, Lehmann, Touré, Lauren. Manchester United: Scholes.
Man of the match: Brown.
Attendance: 39,939.Reuse content