Van Nistelrooy on FA charge as United cry foul over flying food

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson's shirt may have been laundered, and the dressing-room corridor swept clean of rotting sandwiches, but it will take more than a washing machine and a broom to dispel the bad odour which accompanied Manchester United's curtailing of Arsenal's unbeaten run at Old Trafford on Sunday.

The Football Association nevertheless made an impressively swift start at clearing the air yesterday. Ruud van Nistelrooy, the United striker, was charged with serious foul play after appearing to rake his studs down Ashley Cole's shin during the game. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was asked in writing to account for his critical comments about referee Mike Riley. And the FA is also to investigate the post-match fracas in the tunnel which led to a member of Arsenal's backroom staff suffering a bloodied nose, Ferguson being pelted with food and soup and United's security staff being required to break up the rumpus.

Van Nistelrooy was charged after Riley told the FA he did not see the incident which occurred late in the first half as Van Nistelrooy shielded the ball by the right-hand touchline. Television cameras did see it and Van Nistelrooy is required to enter a plea by tomorrow with the case scheduled to be heard by a disciplinary commission on Thursday. If found guilty Van Nistelrooy faces a three-match ban which would begin immediately.

The Manchester United striker insisted yesterday: "We both just went for the ball. It was a 50-50 ball and in these situations two players can collide."

It was Arsenal's anger at Van Nistelrooy's apparent foul ­ and, of course, their defeat ­ which is said to have prompted the tunnel incident. Wenger, who had already remonstrated with Riley on the pitch, waited for Van Nistelrooy by the dressing rooms to argue with him. Several players joined in including, reportedly, Arsenal's Cole, Patrick Vieira and Jens Lehmann and United's Gary Neville and Roy Carroll.

Ferguson, hearing the rumpus, came out of the home dressing room to investigate. He is claimed to have told Wenger "you'll have to control your players" only to be hit by food ­ according to Arsenal sources ­ or soup ­ according to United ones ­ emanating from the away dressing room. As security staff and others broke up the incident Paul Johnson, Arsenal's equipment manager, had his nose bloodied. Ferguson changed from his splattered clothes into a clean tracksuit top for a television interview.

In some respects "Soupgate" is laughable and the running gag yesterday, referring to Arsenal's centre-half and United's left-back, was whether the soup was Campbell's or Heinze's. However, given the status of the clubs, the profile of the match, and the example it sets to a wider world ­ from viewers of CNN to school teams ­ few at the FA found it funny.

The governing body's prospects of punishing anyone for this unseemly fracas is, however, limited. Riley did not mention the incident in his match report and there appear to be no impartial witnesses likely to come forward. The security staff, being employed by United, cannot be regarded as independent and while Sky TV personnel may have seen the fracas they are unlikely to antagonise their relationship with either club by proffering evidence.

After last year's match, during which several United players jostled Van Nistelrooy at the final whistle, Arsenal were fined £175,000 as a club and five players incurred suspensions and fines totalling nine matches and a further £100,000. In the build-up to this match Ferguson said of the punishments: "That mob got away with murder." Wenger responded: "Does he want us lined up against a wall and shot?" On Sunday Wenger turned his ire on Riley and the FA is particularly interested in his comment that "the record of the referee in matches involving Manchester United tells you all you need to know". Riley has a history of awarding penalties for United at Old Trafford.

The general manager of the referees' body PGMOL, Keith Hackett, was supportive of Riley, saying: "Mike clearly had a game plan to try and not suppress the match."

Vieira said: "We are upset about the way we lost. The penalty decision changed the game. We were defending well and we felt comfortable because they were not creating chances. In the dressing room after the game we knew we did not deserve to lose." The club captain insisted Arsenal would recover quickly. "We feel stronger than ever, and our character is just so great we will bounce back. "

Rio Ferdinand, United's captain on Sunday, said: "Sometimes you get the rub of the green with certain decisions and maybe we benefited but that is the way the game goes."

Food fights: rows that left a bitter taste

Sandwich break

In 1996, the Grimsby Town manager Brian Laws was so frustrated by his team's 3-2 defeat by Luton that he threw a plate of chicken sandwiches at leading player Ivano Bonetti, breaking the Italian striker's cheekbone.

Something fishy

The Socceroos once bore the brunt of Hungarian anger when spectators chucked fish at them during a friendly game in 2000 in protest against a part-Australian owned mine that allegedly leaked cyanide into local rivers. Fans also held up signs accusing Mark Bosnich and the rest of the team of being "fish murderers".

This round's on the manager

The then Sunderland manager Peter Reid was drenched by a can of beer after a pre-season friendly defeat in the summer of 2002 in Belgium.

Redknapp's cheese dip

During Don Hutchison's tenure at West Ham, the midfielder became the focus of Harry Redknapp's ire after one miserable performance and had a plate of sandwiches thrown over his head. "He had cheese and egg dripping off him," Redknapp recalled.

Identity parade

Who's the chucker?

Gabriel Heinze

Though the victim was his own manager, the Manchester United defender is an obvious suspect, clearly capable of creating 57 varieties of mayhem. If, as some reports contend, the offending comestibles included a slice of pizza then the Argentinian international, who holds an Italian passport thanks to his mother, is squarely in the frame for that as well.

Sol Campbell

If the foodstuff was not hurled by Heinze, then the culprit must have been his Arsenal counterpart. Never actually immortalised in person by Andy Warhol, the England centre-back has enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame. If challenged in the tunnel he would not have backed down: no one can call Campbell chicken.

Gary Neville

As he could start a fracas in an empty tunnel, the England squad's unofficial shop steward is a prime suspect simply because he was in the vicinity at the time of the incident.

Jens Lehmann

The German goalkeeper's name was the one most mentioned yesterday in dispatches. Such is his propensity for dropping the ball, however, questions must be asked: could he have held on to the cup for long enough to throw it? Or was he passing it to Ferguson for a sip, but flapped at the crucial moment? Perhaps the whole thing was just one big misunderstanding...

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