A half-empty stadium, a vanquished opponent, a resounding victory: Veni Vidi Vici, as they say in Rome. Sir Alex Ferguson's team conquered Arsenal with two goals in the space of three devastating minutes and the rest was simply the dressing on the victory parade.
The road to Rome and the Champions League final on 27 May was decorated by a third exquisite United goal in the second half that reminded Barcelona, should they overcome Chelsea in the other semi-final tonight, that the Catalans do not have the copyright on counter-attacking football. It was dazzling, a box-to-box, four-pass move that opened up Arsenal from belly to throat and was finished by the night's assassin-in-chief, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Fifa World Player of the Year preened and posed, Ferguson waved to the United fans from the bench and thousands of Arsenal fans took the hint and headed for the Tube. It was an annihilation, a game that even Arsène Wenger (below) admitted was over in the first 11 minutes when Ji-sung Park and then Ronaldo scored United's first two goals. It asked all sorts of questions of Wenger's faith in his young team, none of them comfortable.
Only the most granite-hearted Mancunian could take any pleasure in the glowering of Wenger on the bench as his night fell apart, his face in his hands, his eyes fixed at times on the toes of his shoes. The gulf between the young players whom he considers his personal project and the machine that Ferguson has built in the dusk of his career was embarrassingly wide at times, so much so that the United manager went easy on his old adversary in the aftermath.
The only blemish on an ideal night for Ferguson was the dismissal of Darren Fletcher on 75 minutes which means that the Scottish midfielder will miss the final. Even Wenger conceded that the red card for a foul on Cesc Fabregas, that resulted in a penalty which Robin van Persie converted, was "harsh" and as he trudged off, Fletcher wore the glazed expression of a man who could see one of the greatest nights of his career stolen from him.
Ferguson paid due respects to the midfielder, who was excellent last night, and gently urged the Italian referee Roberto Rosetti to re-think his decision but let us put Fletcher's suspension in perspective. He was an unused substitute in the final in Moscow last season and his loss does not compare in any way to the suspension of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes for the 1999 final. Imagine Ferguson's reaction if it had been Wayne Rooney.
Such was United's dominance that just after the hour Ferguson could afford to substitute Rooney and Patrice Evra, both one booking away from a suspension for the final, in order to protect them. It was one of those nights that Ferguson will have expected to be tense and instead he had time to enjoy it By the end, when United's players gathered in the corner to applaud their supporters, the mood had become so becalmed that you had to remind yourself this was a Champions League semi-final. Victory for United had been assured from so early in the game that the usual outpouring of joy at such an achievement were not observed.
Yet, as Ferguson admitted himself, Arsenal had started so well. They certainly edged the first eight minutes when the cinema multiplex hush of the Emirates was transformed into a flag-waving din and Fabregas and Theo Walcott looked dangerous. It did seem that, at the very least, this might be a contest until, in the space of three minutes, the ground was cut away from under Arsenal's feet.
Ferguson had re-ordered United's three most attacking players to put Ronaldo in the middle where he remained, although it was down the inside-left channel that Ronaldo made the first goal. He picked up Anderson's pass inside the full-back and crossed an innocuous looking ball that Kieran Gibbs should have dealt with easily.
On the biggest night of his young career, the 19-year-old fell over. Had this been Wembley and its accursed lumpy turf then Wenger might have had a legitimate complaint but this was the Emirates with its billiard-table smooth surface. Maybe it was Gibbs' snazzy white boots, maybe it was just one of those things that happen in football. He recovered to get a foot on the ball but it was not enough to stop Park scoring.
Arsenal were still coming to terms with the first goal when they conceded the second. Wenger did not agree with the soft award of a free-kick in the right channel for what the referee judged was a foul on Ronaldo by Van Persie. It was a harsh decision but when Ronaldo beat Almunia with a low, dipping free-kick at his left-post you had to wonder if the goalkeeper should have done better.
Ronaldo was at his destructive best, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic had completely dominated Emmanuel Adebayor. The home crowd at the Emirates looked like Edvard Munch's The Scream, repeated over and over again. Then came the third goal on 61 minutes: a breathtaking move from Ronaldo to Park, back to Ronaldo, to Rooney, and to Ronaldo to score.
It was not simply the backheel from Ronaldo that started the move, or the way in which he powered past Johan Djourou to insure it was him who got to the ball first. It was the sheer brimming confidence with which United speared their opposition.
The goal allowed Ferguson to make the changes that protected those players on a booking. Off came Evra and then Rooney, John O'Shea switched to left-back so Rafael da Silva could be accommodated on the opposite side. Wenger threw on Nicklas Bendtner for Walcott and he would later bring on Carlos Vela once Arsenal had scored. They rallied briefly but the damage they did to United was superficial.
Later Fletcher's tackle on Fabregas as he ran onto Van Persie's flick was clumsy but he definitely got a heel to the ball. The penalty went in but for Arsenal, as well as those fans of theirs already on the Holloway Road, there was no coming back
Arsenal (4-5-1): Almunia; Sagna, Djourou, Touré, Gibbs (Eboué, h-t); Walcott (Bendtner, 63), Fabregas, Song, Nasri, Van Persie (Vela, 78); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Diaby, Denilson, Silvestre.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra (R Da Silva, 64); Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Giggs, 63); Park, Ronaldo, Rooney (Berbatov, 65). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Scholes, Evans, Tevez.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).
Man for man marking
By Glenn Moore and Ian Herbert
A well-struck Ronaldo free-kick - but 41 yards? Saves from Rooney and Ronaldo later 6/10
Found Rooney very difficult to mark. Made virtually no impact going forward 5
Ronaldo pulled him hither and thither. A learning experience, but no other positives 5
Looked hesitant when the back four needed leadership. Struggled to mark Ronaldo 5
Few slips are as untimely. A night to forget. Was withdrawn at half-time 4
Ineffective on the few times he got possession. Quicker than Evra but rarely showed it 4
No lack of commitment and never gave up. Too busy fire-fighting to create much 7
Outnumbered in midfield, used ball poorly when he won it. An educative night 5
Anonymous. Goals against United in November seem a very long time ago 4
Robin Van Persie
Was he fit? He never really got in to the game. Took his penalty superbly 6
Greater commitment than of late but a performance to persuade Wenger to cash in? 4
Emmanuel Eboué (Gibbs, h-t) 6; Nicklas Bendtner (Walcott, 63) 6; Carlos Vela (Van Persie, 79) n/a
Edwin van der Sar
Beat away a Van Persie shot on the hour and then handled crosses capably 6/10
Dealt capably though not totally with Nasri's threat, enough to prevent him providing 6
Rattled by Adebayor and made slap at the centre forward, but an assured display 7
A few awkward moments, including ball that span past him leading to penalty 5
A bit uneasy against Walcott, though tackles in first period were statement of intent 6
Dismissal for a tackle on Fabregas was highly unjustified. The best of United's midfield 7
Dealt with Fabregas and started move which saw Rooney shot touched wide 6
Powerful, probing display. Pass inside Touré to Rooney ended in United's first goal 7
Two touches to take ball past Gibbs and over Almunia were excellent. Helped set up third 7
A 41-yard centre forward's strike to go with his effort in Porto. A deadly threat 9
Unqenchable energy again. Gave superb ball which sent in Ronaldo for the third 8
Ryan Giggs (Anderson, 62) 6; Berbatov (Rooney, 66) 6; Rafael (Evra, 65) 4
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