Saturday, April 3, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: April 4, 11:59 AM UK
United not dead yet
Manchester United 1 - 0 Arsenal
They'd been written off.
They'd been criticised.
One long obituary after obituary had been written about Manchester United and their manager from so-called journalists and fans.
Of course, some of the hacks had their own agendas - particularly to heap scorn and abuse on a man who has proved them wrong so many times over the years and not been afraid to bar their requests for information when they've reported out of turn. Apparently some quarters were concerned Fergie should protect his own reputation.
That it would be a shame if one of the last of the 'old school' of football managers had become ill and faded from the public spotlight. The very thought some of these people had any interest in Ferguson's health or welfare was laughable.
The fact that the champions of England were just one big victory from an FA Cup final appearance and the chance of more silverware also seemed to have conveniently evaded them.
Of course, there will still be some who believe that even if United win the FA Cup at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium next month, it will represent some kind of failure.
That theory is absolute nonsense. And for those doubters who said United treated the trophy with contempt when they opted to play in the World Club Championship in 2000, the same applies.
It seems to have been conveniently forgotten by many that had United not taken part and Germany - as they were anyway - were awarded the 2006 World Cup, the opportunistic papers would have blamed United for not backing the FA's bid.
Put simply, to win a major piece of silverware is success for any club and United are now 90 minutes away from a record 11th triumph in the country's greatest cup competition.
A 32nd minute goal from Paul Scholes was enough to separate the country's best two clubs and end Arsenal's bid to emulate United's 1999 Treble success. At this stage I should apologise for not mentioning Arsenal much in this report.
United have ended their two year grip on the cup, but the North Londoners are all but certain to take the championship off United. And despite this setback, they have set the benchmark in English football this season and will certainly not ended the season empty-handed.
But this was United's day, although immediately after this compelling encounter kicked off, Ferguson's semi-final record - he has never lost a domestic cup semi-final in 10 attempts now - was in danger.
Inside three minutes, the ever improving Roy Carroll made an important block at the feet of Dennis Bergkamp and when the veteran Dutchman then curled the ball towards goal, Wes Brown was perfectly positioned to head clear a certain opener.
Within seconds, Brazilian Edu produced a beautiful lob which clipped the top of the bar and with Kolo Toure and Freddie Ljungberg both waiting to nod in the rebound, a goal seemed certain again.
The Ivory Coast defender applied the touch but Carroll recovered brilliantly to tip the ball away from point-blank range. There was nothing between the sides though.
A marauding run from Sol Campbell after 24 minutes found Bergkamp and his pinpoint cross was headed over by Robert Pires.
Pires was soon cautioned, when perhaps he could have received a worse punishment, for catching Gary Neville in the face with his arm.
Neville was typical of United - commitment personified. He had already ventured deep twice to win tackles and, after he received the ball from skipper Roy Keane after 32 minutes, the England full-back played Ryan Giggs in and the Welshman took the ball in his stride and kept a cool head, venturing into the box before rolling the ball across to Paul Scholes who had timed his run to rifle it past Jens Lehmann.
As the half wore on, Mikael Silvestre produced a finely executed tackle as Ljungberg looked likely to score and, although Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time in first half stoppage time through a Patrick Vieira header which clipped the post.
Into the second half, and chances remained few, although the sight of Bergkamp diving in the box trying to win a penalty - or of Lehmann pushing Cristiano Ronaldo - was not befitting of this, or any other occasion.
Possession swung from one side to the next and Thierry Henry, Jose Antonio Reyes and Kanu all entered the fray.
With Ruud van Nistelrooy finally having to succumb to a knee injury, Louis Saha cup-tied - not to mention Diego Forlan jet-lagged, how United could have wished for those attacking options on the substitutes bench.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the player who has missed most of the campaign through injury, led the line and despite not being match-fit, constantly harried the Arsenal rearguard.
That type of work rate was evident and United, driven on by the fans Sir Alex Ferguson called their '12th man', had done it - their proud record at Villa Park intact.
Whatever the pressures on him, whatever the result of this match, Ferguson was always guaranteed to walk out at Old Trafford for his side's next league match to 60,000 friends.
Although, always the committed professional, he'll be back home tomorrow to eye his opponents for the May 22 showdown. Britain's most successful manager has now proved his foes wrong.
Man of the match: There were very good displays on both
sides but Wes Brown edges it for an accomplished all-round showing. Getting back to his best after a second career-threatening injury.
Moment of the match: Roy Carroll's two early saves and the
best move of the match which led to the only goal.
Atmosphere: A real cup cracker. United diehards produced a crescendo of noise - despite being given a reduced allocation - but the Arsenal supporters played their part too, although it was surprise they returned 900 unsold tickets.
Insider question: It seems unfair with this last point in
mind, that United were refused 1,700 tickets on safety
grounds, despite a report by Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council earlier this week which said the safety risk posed by persistent standing at games was less than that created by goal celebrations.
Final word: To referee Graham Barber who, on the whole,
handled a potentially difficult task well.