Arsenal 1 (Van Persie pen 75) Man Utd 3 (Park 8, Ronaldo 11, 61)
(Champions League Semi Final, agg 1-4)
The temptation today is for many to point the finger at a fourth consecutive season without a trophy, and demand immediate wholesale changes. It is easy to label four or five players as substandard, and insist on a Championship Manager-like overhaul. It started minutes after the game last night – Jens Lehmann, providing stiff punditry on ITV, was asked whether Wenger’s methods now had to completely change.
It is clear to all and sundry that there are flaws in this Arsenal side – not even the most optimistic fan would claim otherwise. In the big games recently, we’ve been outthought, outfought and outclassed, and ultimately both Chelsea and United deserved to go through. And unlike the Chelsea game, where we were missing 80% of our backline, we can’t even blame injuries – last night we were without only Gallas and Clichy from our first choice XI.
So my defence of this group of players is not borne out of myopia of the frailties they have. But it would be an unravelling of great progress to ditch the younger players in favour of established stars, and an impractical process given the price of the players we would be seeking. No, instead Wenger needs not to change his approach from recent times, where he has added the likes of Eduardo, Sagna and Arshavin to his emerging crop of youngsters – players who can make an immediate impact. More than anything, he needs a summer without an exodus.
In truth, most of this talk can wait until the summer, but it is instinctive to look forward when the last flame of success is extinguished from your season. And that is what happened so early last night.
The irony is that the early stages were promising. The team selection was as we all hoped, the atmosphere was electric, and the team started with pace and positivity. But when Gibbs, so impressive in the first leg and generally over the last month, slipped at a crucial moment, Park nipped in to convert Ronaldo’s cross.
Deflation. The side were rocked, you could see that immediately. Poor Gibbs looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up, but we could still progress with a 3-1 win. I predicted that exact score yesterday, but realistically that relied on us scoring first, and quite possibly second.
If Park’s goal made it unlikely, what followed killed the tie. The referee (who gave soft free kicks all night) bought a Ronaldo dive, but the free kick was still forty yards out, and good as Ronaldo’s strike was, Almunia should’ve saved it. So cruel that our two best performers from the first leg had contrived to gift United a two goal lead.
Some will criticise our lack of fight after that, saying we should’ve gone for it, but ask yourself this – did you believe the tie was over? Of course you did, and the players aren’t stupid – they knew the game was up too. We huffed and puffed, but it was Almunia who was making the saves, two great stops from Rooney and Ronaldo saving us from further embarrassment.
Ronaldo did get his second from an excellent counter attack in the second half, after I imagine he got a rollicking from Ferguson at half time. It was noticeable that from the second goal to the break, he was treating the match like his own personal show boating session, a mocking that stopped after the interval, and rightly so.
We did get one consolation, but even that was fortunate – Fletcher clearly got the ball before bringing Cesc down for a penalty that Van Persie converted, and the red card (which cannot be appealed) was particularly harsh, in truth. In the context of this match, it mattered little – we didn’t look to have the numerical advantage at any point.
At the end of the day, we were thoroughly outplayed over two legs – Almunia made all the saves, Van der Sar was a passenger except for routine stops from Van Persie last night and Cesc at Old Trafford. And ultimately, we have to accept that at this moment in time, we are not as good as United – these matches showed it, as does the league table.
But that does not mean we tear the teamsheet up and start again. We need more power, more numbers, and perhaps more leadership, but we do not need a whole new team.