Man Utd 2 (Fabio 28, Rooney 49) Arsenal 0
(FA Cup Quarter Final)
How can you describe that except to say it was painfully familiar? The majority of possession, complete control of the middle third, and the vast majority of chances. Despite all of that, it was a defeat that felt somewhat comfortable, and certainly once United had taken a two goal lead the result was never in doubt, despite Van der Sar being called into action time and time again.
Tired minds were always likely to be a problem after the crushing defeat to Birmingham and the brutal exit at the hands of Barcelona in midweek, but spirits should have been lifted when the teams were announced – an opposing midfield of Fabio, Rafael, Gibson and O’Shea is hardly likely to send a shiver up the spine. Their gameplan was clear – contain and counter, and despite it being the tactic used successfully time and time again by United in these meetings, we fell for it once again.
The most critical thing when faced with that kind of approach is to not concede the first goal, particularly not to a defensive mistake. Unfortunately, as so many times before, we did. In fairness, it was an excellent United move, but when Hernandez forced Almunia into an reflex save, Koscielny was a split second slower to react than Fabio, and one half of the Brazilian twins buried the rebound. It was a galling moment because we had all the play up to that point, admittedly without creating much besides Van Persie’s snap shot that was well turned aside by Van der Sar.
Before half time we came close again, Nasri firing through legs to force Van der Sar into another good stop at his near post. It was scant reward for two-thirds of possession (which, unlike Tuesday night, was not given as a reason why we deserved to be ahead – funny that), but United knew exactly what they were doing – contain and force us narrow, wait for it to break down and then counter at pace. We knew it was coming, but couldn’t stop it.
At the start of the second half we had a minute that defined the game – first Koscielny made an excellent surge upfield, before seeming to get a nosebleed when sent through on goal, trying to square it instead of shoot. But when the ball returned to him, he took it on, and it took a remarkable save to deny him the equaliser. Within sixty seconds, we were two down – Djourou did everything he could in blocking Hernandez after he cut inside Gibbs too easily, but when the ball rebounded up in the air Rooney was the only one to react, heading in a cute finish that we probably all knew would seal it.
Looking objectively, we created enough chances even from that point to win it – Chamakh missed the best when his close range header was too weak, allowing Van der Sar to keep it out, but the veteran stopper was also forced into a string of other saves. Yet somehow it never felt like the misses were going to matter – from the moment Rooney doubled their lead the result was inevitable. You could see it in the players too – there were a number of lowered heads with twenty minutes still left to play, which leaves them ripe for criticism but is perhaps understandable given what they have gone through over the last couple of weeks. As fans, we’re gutted at the evaporation of our challenge in three competitions, and we sometimes ignore the fact that they are too, particularly when the have to walk past trophies and winner’s medals at Wembley. It is a chastening experience that does have a lasting effect.
Three weeks ago we were being talked up as potential quadruple winners. None of us believed it, of course, and neither should we believe that we are the terrible side we will now be portrayed as. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between. Too many massive fixtures in a short space of time has caught up with us – you could see the mental fatigue in the players tonight, and while you can argue that professionals should be able to get past that, it is easier said than done.
We will not lift a cup this season. Personally, I thought we’d win the Carling Cup but lose the other two ties, and after recent events I predicted we would lose today but recover to win the title. That might sound overly optimistic right now, especially with the likes of Cesc and Walcott on the sidelines, both of whom are critical to our chances – we play with much higher energy levels with the pair available. But both should be back soon, as should Song, and it is worth noting that next weekend’s game with West Brom is the only one we have left in March. Also important is that we will get a good rest in between all our remaining matches – the trip to White Hart Lane at the end of April is our only midweek fixture.
It might sound like I’m clutching at straws, and to an extent I am. To try to spin going out of three competitions as a good thing because it eases our fixture list is pushing it, but that is the reality of the situation. We have ten games in ten weeks, and United have the FA Cup and the Champions League still to focus on. We really have no excuses for not lifting the Premiership now, especially as we have such a long period of time to get over the recent disappointments before the league picks up again. For once, an international break may be well timed.
Of course, we will have to cope without Djourou, whose season is over after dislocating his shoulder in the closing moments. It is a cruel blow for a player who has performed magnificently in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, and leaves us with Koscielny and Squillaci, a partnership that has hardly flourished so far. Expect Miquel to feature a few times before the season is out.
It has been a painful fortnight. Three massive cup ties have been lost, and the league match sandwiched between them provided no respite. Now we have only one focus, and that is the league. I’m sure many tonight will doubt our capacity to win it, but with United facing the fixture pile up (and collection of injuries) that can push a squad too far, and with no other realistic challengers, even our patched up squad has a great chance. Time to take it.
One more thing. Welcome back, Aaron Ramsey.