Like the great Emperors of the past, Sir Alex Ferguson will attempt to rule Rome in three weeks' time after Manchester United produced an awesome attacking display to destroy Arsenal.
A fortuitous opener from Park Ji-sung was followed by a thunderous 40-yard
free-kick from Cristiano Ronaldo to effectively book a Champions League final
date with Chelsea or Barcelona on May 27 after only 11 minutes.
Ronaldo capped a fine performance and drew howls of glee from David Beckham,
who had made the trip from Milan to witness a victory that will go alongside
that staggering win over Juventus in 1999 that the former England skipper was a
part of, by sliding home a third goal, his 25th of the season.
It was not quite a perfect night for United. How could it be when Darren
Fletcher ended it in disbelief at the red card for a tackle on Cesc Fabregas
which will rule him out of the Italian job.
However, it was not far off, leaving United to await events at Stamford Bridge
tomorrow with so many neutrals, if not a Chelsea side hell-bent on revenge,
hoping Barcelona set up what would be a dream decider.
No amount of meticulous planning can legislate for bad luck.
It is the unknown factor that, in an instant, can screw any amount of hopes and
dreams into the tightest ball and throw them out of the highest window, never to
be seen again.
Kieran Gibbs has not been a first-team regular very long. Fitness permitting,
he has almost a decade and a half in front of him in the Arsenal side.
It is a fair bet, at the end of his career, the 18-year-old still regards the
horror that unfolded eight minutes into what was such an eagerly-awaited contest
as the worst moment he had to endure.
In his head, Gibbs was about to control Ronaldo's cutback, then decide whether
to play a short pass out of defence or present Manuel Almunia with a routine
clearance. Fate had other plans.
Instead, poor Gibbs lost his footing and hit the ground with a thump. Like
lightning, Park seized on the loose ball, delicately lifting it over Almunia,
whose arrival came just too late.
The United contingent went delirious. Fans, coaches, manager, players, Beckham
alike all knew what it meant. They knew the prospect of Arsenal getting three to
go through was so remote to be beyond comprehension.
But if United's opener came courtesy of good fortune, their next was the result
of audacity, mixed with high ability.
To even think of going for goal from the spot when Robin van Persie had
clattered into Ronaldo would be dismissed by most professionals as foolhardy.
Yet, in Porto three weeks ago, the world player of the year drove home a shot
measured at exactly 39.1 yards. As Ronaldo stepped back and waited from even
further out, ready to unleash his missile, Almunia knew what to expect.
Indeed, it could be argued that from such distances, not goalkeeper should be
But as Ronaldo let fly, with venom, and watched his shot dip and flicker,
Almunia was powerless to prevent it ripping into the net.
If three was unlikely, four was an impossibility, turning the remaining 79
minutes into an extended wake, leaving Arsene Wenger on the bench wondering what
had hit him, knowing his Champions League obsession will not end in Roman
In fairness, Arsenal tried to rally. It was just that by pushing forward, they
left wide open gaps that United are too experienced to ignore.
Almunia's fingertips denied Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo's header from the corner
whistled wide, then two more free-kicks from the latter were saved.
When the Portuguese player cut inside Emmanuel Eboue, on as a half-time
replacement to put Gibbs out of his misery, the shot would have found the bottom
corner had Almunia not denied him.
There was nothing the Spaniard could do when United attacked again, Ronaldo
supplying the finish to Rooney's cross.
As his players cavorted in glee, Ferguson ordered them to tone down their
celebrations out of respect to the hosts.
It was the only mercy the Red Devils showed all night, although for Fletcher
there was a nasty sting in the tail.
The Scot got studs on the ball before sending Fabregas flying in the penalty
area, earning him a red card which will rule him out of the final. Van Persie
impressively converted the spot-kick - but it was little consolation for