By Richard Clarke
The success of Arsenal's season will now depend on their Premier League and Champions League progress after they were unceremoniously knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Before this Fifth Round tie, Arsène Wenger had suggested his side were "down to the bare bones". And they were certainly dead and buried within 20 minutes this afternoon after Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher scored with headers.
Nani added another seven minutes before the break and, after Emmanuel Eboue had been dismissed, Fletcher netted once more 16 minutes from time.
It was a poor performance from Arsenal, who were caught by Manchester United's early onslaught and never really escaped.
But, like their 5-1 Carling Cup exit at the hands of Tottenham, the travelling supporters can take comfort in the fact that their side's priorities lie elsewhere.
Towards the end of the game, those fans, who were perhaps Arsenal's best performer on the day, sang "we'll be back to win the League".
Time will tell about that.
Before then, on Wednesday, Arsenal entertain Milan in the Champions League Knockout Round first leg.
Despite all their injuries, Wenger would surely welcome a little bout of amnesia before then.
Because this game is best forgotten.
Arsenal had travelled to Manchester on Friday without nine players but, more tellingly, with a further three carrying injuries.
In the end the entire trio - Philippe Senderos (knee), Gael Clichy (hamstring) and Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) - started on the bench.
The full injured list was as follows as: Johan Djourou (groin), Robin van Persie (thigh), Abou Diaby (calf), Manuel Almunia (sick), Denilson (hamstring), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Theo Walcott (thigh), Alex Song (muscular) and Bacary Sagna (personal reasons).
It meant the side that Wenger named was pretty much his full compliment of fit players.
Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore were the full backs while Kolo Toure and Eboue were playing their first games for Arsenal since the 2-0 win at Burnley in the Third Round.
William Gallas and Cesc Fabregas started despite suggestions they may be rested ahead of the Milan game. Manchester United's only concessions to their tie at Lyon were the omission of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. However Rooney was back after missing the defeat to Manchester City through suspension.
It had been a clear bright day in Manchester. But by 5.15pm, it had gotten cold. However the bristling atmosphere was something to behold.
This was not only Arsenal v Manchester United but it was far and away the tie of the Fifth Round. Not even Liverpool's surprise exit to Barnsley could detract from that.
However Manchester United began the afternoon like they were in the mood to make some headlines - and they barely relented all game.
As early as the eighth minute, Anderson saw a left-footed drive saved at the near post by Jens Lehmann.
Soon after, Nani swung over a corner to the edge of the six-yard box and Gallas sliced the ball behind. The Frenchman erred again a couple of minutes later and Lehmann raced to the edge of his area to boot the ball clear as Rooney sprinted through.
At this stage it was all Manchester United so it was no surprise to see them take the lead on the quarter-hour. Bendtner half-cleared Nani's corner and Anderson nodded it back goalwards for Rooney to divert a header past Lehmann from close range.
Almost immediately it was 2-0. Nani twisted and turned past Hoyte on the byline then clipped a ball to the near post for Darren Fletcher to power home a header from point-blank range. Though Gallas may have got the final touch.
Only 20 minutes had gone and the visitors had barely settled. And they were now facing perhaps the most difficult task in British football over the last 15 years - clawing back a sizeable lead at Old Trafford.
Arsenal responded in some way when Bendtner touched the ball to Gallas on the left and his cross picked out Hleb on the edge of the area. The Belarus midfielder hit it first time but Patrice Evra blocked.
The ball flew up the other end and, once again, Lehmann had to race out to boot away the danger as Rooney went clear.
The England striker was having a superb game. However just past the half-hour he might have done better when, with only Gallas to beat, he trickled a shot well wide.
A couple of minutes later Rooney expertly chested down Fletcher's cross but his drive was disappointing. Still, the former Everton striker was causing untold trouble in the Arsenal backline.
However the third goal had nothing to Rooney. In the 38th minute Michael Carrick clipped a simple ball forward over Gallas' head and Nani steered in a left-foot shot. Again it had been a straightforward move. Arsenal just had not defended it well enough.
At the break, the chat amongst the creditable number of travelling fans must have been dominated by thoughts of damage limitation rather than a Sixth Round tie in a couple of weeks time.
Just to hammer home the point, within two minutes of the restart, Lehmann had saved twice from Rooney - once from a snap-shot and once from a free-kick.
However almost immediately a sizeable problem became a mountain when Eboue received a straight red card for a high tackle on Nani.
The decision ended any hope of an Arsenal comeback. The contest was over.
Just past the hour, Rooney steered a shot wide and drew a fine save from Lehmann. Despite his excellent game, the Manchester United man should have converted more of the glorious positions he had got himself into.
In the 63rd minute Arsenal created perhaps only their second legitimate chance of the game when Eduardo guided a header over the bar from a floated ball into the area by Fabregas.
Anderson, another eye-catching performance this afternoon, had another couple of chances to extend Manchester United's lead. Then Nani curled an effort wide.
Just after that Wenger made a triple substitution - Senderos, Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini for Eduardo, Hleb and Fabregas. It seemed to be a move made with Milan in mind.
Quite ironically, just as Arsenal had strengthened, Manchester United got their fourth when Nani crossed and Fletcher rose highest at the far post to head home.
There were only two real chances for a fifth. Both fell to substitute Louis Saha, prodded meekly at the legs of Lehmann and then blazed wide.
Thankfully the whistle blew a couple of minutes later.
Referee: Alan Wiley
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