The Europa League will suit Arsenal and Manchester United - two teams and a fixture that aren't what they used to be

A sub-par game between the fifth and sixth-best teams in the Premier League was a pale imitation of their former battles

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The Independent Football

The Uefa Cup, in its Thursday night slot on Channel 5, used to be a worst-case scenario that Manchester United fans would taunt Arsenal with as they clung on to the trophy more ignominiously known as fourth place. 

Now it is United’s only chance of Champions League football. Of avoiding two years away from Europe’s top table and the financial and reputational blows that would encompass. Of staying relevant despite spending nearly half a billion on players in the past few years. 

For Arsenal, the team whose softness and penchant for half-success has become a standing joke, even that fourth-placed trophy still looks out of reach. 

This was a game with no winner. Indeed, for much of the afternoon it was a game with no real rhythm and no spice. The feisty days of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira grizzling in the tunnel are long gone but this fixture, once England’s biggest game, now doesn’t even have Martin Keown maniacally taunting nor Cesc Fabregas tossing pizza. 

Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger were once bitter adversaries, with the Portuguese making comments about his rival that were beyond the pale. Now they are men past their prime, left behind by the Premier League’s bright young things as the old-timers continue to wail into the wind. 

As Danny Welbeck wheeled away after converting the second goal, a powerful close-range header, he dared to celebrate. That perceived betrayal of his roots is about as much controversy as you will get out of this fixture, one where Italian buffets used to fly and titles would be decided. Now fans of either side will spend their Monday discussing with friends why a boy from Wythenshawe, discarded by his boyhood club, should or shouldn’t have expressed joy at winning a game of football. 

For United, depleted by injury and with a Europa League semi-final second leg to think about, this game saw a rotated side and the likes of Axel Tuanzebe handed a start. They still matched their hosts for much of the game and, when presented with a gilt-edged chance by a mistake in defence, Wayne Rooney should have put them ahead before the break. Instead it was Petr Cech who saved Arsenal, a theme of that first half and something he reprised in the dying stages, with United pushing on in desperation. 

But Welbeck’s goal - and Granit Xhaka’s deflected strike just minutes before it - had handed Arsenal a lead that, in a game so lacking in quality, immediately looked insurmountable.


Former United man Welbeck's goal was virtually the only spice to the game (Getty Images)

That £35million man Xhaka would finally produce in a big game will no doubt be of scant consolation to Wenger, a man who bought players last summer that he felt could make the Gunners into title contenders again and only succeeded in reversing them out of the top four. 

It feels like there is no purchase in the world that could save Arsenal right now. Even the most improbable run of results stealing them a top-four position and another Champions League campaign doesn’t feel that positive, like Wenger is the right man to improve them again with either chequebook or coaching. 

But Mourinho still has a chance of lifting United again. Late on he threw Rashford into the mix, his only real dice to roll these days, but with little result. Jose knows that success for him now hinges on a win over Celta Vigo at Old Trafford and then beating (most likely) Ajax in Stockholm at the end of the month. 

That sequence of results, and only that, would prevent his first season in Manchester from being a failure, from continuing the feeling that his powers are on the wane. 

Even the man in the opposite dugout, the team that beat him and even this fixture itself could sympathise with that. 

It was a familiar feeling around a game it felt like nobody had won.