Travesty for United but triumph for an extra-special keeper

Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0
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Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0

After extra time; Arsenal win 5-4 on penalties Attendance: 71,876

It had to come. Twelve years after Andy Linighan's late, late goal for Arsenal prevented the FA Cup final from having to be decided on penalties, that ghastly outcome finally materialised yesterday. Worse, the unsatisfactory, if nail-chewing, drama produced entirely the wrong result, a travesty in fact.

After the champagne football of the past couple of weeks, Arsenal were flat, devoid of all fizz and even a touch of class. Having scored 29 goals more than Manchester United in the Premiership, they managed one shot here in 120 minutes, trying three different - or indifferent - centre-forwards in the absence of Thierry Henry. The revised formation, with Dennis Bergkamp starting as the principal attacker, never began to look convincing. The Dutchman was wasted in that role, and Patrick Vieira quickly became eclipsed by his old foe Roy Keane, resurfacing only to strike the winning spot-kick.

As United took a solid grip in the second half of normal time, with Keane, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo all outstanding, Rooney hit a post and Ruud van Nistelrooy's header was scraped off the line. They were the better side in extra time as well, but could not profit, so penalties were required, at the end of the ground housing their supporters, who suddenly had no time to worry about Malcolm Glazer.

Jose Antonio Reyes was unavailable to take one for Arsenal, having been sent off for a second yellow card in the last minute of extra time. His team-mates converted five immaculate kicks and the much-criticised Jens Lehmann made the crucial save, from poor Paul Scholes, who had been one of United's few disappointments. He sat too deep to offer Van Nistelrooy support, which was the one small success Arsène Wenger might have claimed for crowding the midfield.

"We were fortunate not to concede in the second half, because Man United created three or four good chances," he admitted. "We won it with mental strength and resilience more than our usual style." Sir Alex Ferguson was ultimately good-humoured in defeat, satisfied that his team had "prepared well and played very well". Where they fell down was in finishing, as has been the case so often this season. "In cup football you need a break and we didn't get it. But we've only ourselves to blame."

The surprise in his gameplan was that it was Rooney who played on the right and Ronaldo on the left, where he made life difficult for Lauren from the start. So United worked better down the flanks and became the more threatening team as a slow-burner of a first half wore on. They created the first real chance after six minutes, courtesy of Ronaldo, stepping over the ball with bewildering feints, to skip away from Lauren and cross right on to the head of Scholes, unmarked but unable to do any more than nod over the bar from eight yards.

Just before the half-hour the game took on a clearer shape, one that favoured Ferguson's team. Gilberto Silva was forced to concede a corner which led to Fletcher feeding Rooney for a fine drive against Lehmann's leg; Rio Ferdinand, who has never scored for United in more than 100 games, knocked in the rebound but had strayed a fraction offside.

In the next move, Van Nistelrooy left Ashley Cole for dead down the right and set up Rooney for another powerful effort, pushed over the bar. Scholes hit the subsequent corner over the penalty area to Rooney, whose volley might have become one of the great Cup final goals. It flew just a little too high. Arsenal built up slowly and passed confidently until reaching the area of the pitch where it really mattered. Thus Reyes scuttled on to Philippe Senderos's pass but cut the ball back too far and Robert Pires did the same.

Superiority became dominance in the early stages of the second half as Arsenal were pushed back hard and often. Only a couple of minutes into the half Ferdinand, a centre-half, was at their by-line, with no end result. Van Nistelrooy then sent Keane into the penalty area, Kolo Touré narrowly beating Rooney to the cross. Ronaldo was wide with a drive and then a free-kick from some distance, the latter effort after Lauren's latest foul on Ronaldo earned him the game's third booking, after Cole and Mikaël Silvestre.

A shot into the crowd by Pires after Ferdinand headed out a free-kick was a rare incursion into United territory. Wenger had to change something and Robin van Persie might have been expected, but Fredrik Ljungberg appeared for the ill-used Bergkamp, whose only consolation will be confirmation of a new one-year contract this week. Reyes moved more centrally at last, but United came closer than ever to a goal. Exactly midway through the half, Silvestre pinged a diagonal pass 50 yards to Rooney, who went for Lehmann's near post - and hit it, Fletcher screwing the rebound past the other upright. Confidence as high as the open roof, Rooney next brought Lehmann to his knees with a direct free-kick after Ronaldo dived over Touré's challenge.

The referee, Rob Styles, having an excellent game after criticism of his appointment, rightly made Reyes the fourth name in his book, later adding those of Scholes and Vieira, and then dismissing the young Spaniard after he caught Ronaldo with an arm.

As the game reached the last five minutes of normal time, United were twice more deprived of the goal they deserved. Lehmann failed to cut out a corner from the left and had Vieira to thank for blocking Keane's shot from 12 yards. That brought another corner and an even closer shave; the ball bounced nicely for Van Nistelrooy to head from close range, but Ljungberg, standing on the line, nodded it on to the bar and away.

So to extra time, with Ryan Giggs on for Darren Fletcher. When Van Persie, having replaced Cesc Fabregas, demanded a good save from Roy Carroll in the 97th minute, it was the London side's first shot on target. Play was soon back at the other end, with two United shouts for handball and Lehmann saving from Scholes, whose cross was then negligently headed over the bar by Van Nistelrooy. That would prove horribly costly, even though the Dutch striker got the shoot-out - the official one - under way with the first of nine immaculately converted kicks. The fall-guy was Scholes with United's second.

"The test of any manager and player is how they handle adversity," Ferguson said. "Our club's handled that well over the years and we'll do so again." It was a suitably defiant note on which to end an immensely frustrating afternoon and equally difficult season.

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