By Richard Clarke at Old Trafford
Arsenal bowed out of the FA Cup after a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on Saturday evening.
Arsène Wenger’s side had been criticised for a backfoot display in their Champions League exit at Barcelona in midweek. But this Sixth Round tie was very different.
Arsenal had the majority of possession and nearly twice the number of shots on target as their opponents but were found wanting in the key moments.
They came just before the half-hour when Fabio thumped home after Manuel Almunia palmed a header from Javier Hernandez into his path. Then, four minutes after the restart, Wayne Rooney guided home a header from close range.
The second goal came straight after a wonderful save by Edwin van der Sar from Laurent Koscielny. The two events were a microcosm of this encounter.
The Dutch keeper frustrated Arsenal with a number of saves in the second half and rightly had the home supporters singing his name late on.
The only brightside for Arsenal was the return of Aaron Ramsey into the first-team after his broken leg. However the visitors ended with 10 men on the pitch as, after all their substitutions were made, Johan Djourou was stretchered off with a dislocated shoulder. His season is over.
So a hard week ended in teak-tough fashion for Arsenal. Again they might feel ‘overpunished’ for their sins.
The past few days have cost them two competitions. But, despite it all, the Premier League title is still very much in their hands.
Roll on next week.
Wenger had promised to play the best side available. This was it, albeit there were changes after the travails at Barcelona on Tuesday.
Wojciech Szcesney (finger) and Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) were enforced omissions. Almunia and Denilson replaced them. Gael Clichy and Tomas Rosicky were left on the bench so Kieran Gibbs and Andrey Arshavin came in.
Manchester United have their own Champions League tie next week and that clearly coloured the team selection of Sir Alex Ferguson. He put Hernandez and Rooney up front but his midfield was packed with players normally seen in defence.
In December, Manchester United had won the Premier League between the two sides thanks a safety-first approach. Clearly the plan was more of the same this afternoon.
Certainly, the visitors would dominate possession in the first half but, tellingly, the two key chances would go to Manchester United.
The game took time to settle. Arsenal were the more comfortable early on. They sprayed the ball around nicely and threw in a number of crosses but had only Arshavin’s drive wide to show for it.
As Manchester United gradually found their feet, they began making chances. The best came after 15 minutes.
Fabio crossed from the left and an unmarked Rafael powered his header over the bar from six-yards. A huge let-off for Arsenal.
Wenger’s men responded with poise and patient build-up but they could not force their way through Manchester United’s ‘two banks of four’.
And conceding a goal in the 28th minute only made the situation worse.
Rooney clipped the ball to the far post where Hernandez had ghosted away from Djourou. The Mexican’s header was downward, powerful and to the right of Almunia. The keeper got a strong hand to the ball but only palmed it into the path of Fabio, who slammed the ball into the roof of the net.
The goal sparked more incisiveness from Arsenal. Four minutes later, Nasri fed Robin van Persie in the right-hand channel. The Dutchman turned Vidic and fired right-footed towards the far post. Van der Sar fingertipped the ball for a corner. Nasri took it and Van Persie powered a header just wide.
In injury time, the striker fed Nasri on the left. The Frenchman darted inside his marker and fired low towards the near post. Van der Sar again bent low to save.
At the break, Arsenal were in an unenviable position – chasing the game at Old Trafford against a Manchester United set up to stop them.
The first four minutes after the restart would decide the tie. Koscielny, up from defence, exchanged passes with Arshavin on the edge of the area. The Frenchman's cross was deflected towards Van der Sar’s leg but the keeper kicked it away.
The ball returned to the feet of Koscielny but this time the Dutch keeper made a wonderful gymnastic save.
It was Arsenal’s best chance of the game but it was one for which they would be punished.
Rafael ghosted past Gibbs on the right of the area and Djourou hurriedly stopped Hernandez turning the ball home. However, his clearance looped up invitingly for Rooney to steer a header into the far corner of the net.
Arsenal were already chasing the game. Now it was a hot pursuit. In the 56th minute, Nasri bounced a powerful shot towards goal. Typical of their fortune this afternoon, it flew straight at Van der Sar.
The visitors were now pushing forward but, of course, that gave Manchester United space to break. And Ferguson could now bring on experience. Antonio Valencia arrived at the interval, Ryan Giggs followed him on the hour.
Almost immediately, the Welshman could have sealed the tie. But he dallied too long with the goal gaping six yards out and Jack Wilshere, who was excellent throughout, stole the ball from his foot.
Arsenal’s substitute, Marouane Chamakh, tested Van der Sar from range but Rooney replied by firing into the sidenetting.
With 19 minutes left, Wenger gambled. Abou Diaby and Arshavin came off. Rosicky and, for the first time since February 2010, Ramsey were introduced.
Chamakh should have brought Arsenal back into the tie in the 76th minute when Sagna’s hanging cross found him at the far post. But Van der Sar clawed away his header.
The keeper was having an inspired game and seconds later he batted away Rosicky’s thunderous drive.
However, 10 minutes from time, it would be Almunia’s turn. The Spaniard clawed away Hernandez wonderfully but, in the goalmouth melee, Djourou had been bundled over by the backtracking Sagna.
The Swiss defender went down and did not get up. He was stretchered off holding his shoulder.
That ended Arsenal’s efforts. It had been hard enough with 11 men let alone 10.
Almunia saved late on from Hernandez and the home fans went home happy.
The visiting supporters must have been downhearted but they did not show it.
Their support was magnificent this evening. The team will need them if they are to recover from this defeat.
But both of them know a major trophy is still possible for Arsenal this season.
Referee: Chris Foy
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