A more bizarre game of football you will rarely see. I speak of course, about the second leg of the Champions League semi-final between Arsenal and Manchester United which, after all the hype and all the build up between the two managers going into the match, was all over within the opening ten minutes. The really strange thing though, is that it could all have been so very different.
For the first few minutes, it did seem to my blurry eyes (it was 6.30am, c’mon!) that Arsenal were looking like they may deliver on Wenger’s pre-match promise that it would be a masterful team performance and that they stood every chance of making it through. They pinged it about with a bit of style and plenty of attacking intent and it looked like they were really in the mood for this one, so i sat back, lipped my lips and prepared myself for a feast of intense football…
…unfortunately, then Arsenal gave the ball away, United broke down the left, Kieran Gibbs, the poor fellow, lost his footing inside his own area and gifted Park Ji Sung the perfect opportunity to score, which he duly took. Suddenly the glimmer of hope that remained for Arsenal was all but extinguished – United had an away goal and they had to score three times to go make it to the final.
Let us take a tangent here to imagine just how appalling young Gibbs must be feeling, and consider the injustice that it should be he who the turf picked to be the scapegoat. He’s had a cracking start to his Arsenal career, has looked to be a capable stand-in for Gael Clichy, who behind Leighton Baines is probably the world’s best left back, and had a really solid first leg last week, keeping one Cristiano Ronaldo largely under wraps.
Now though, Gibbs will be remebered throughout what lookes likely to be a successful career for the mistake that cost Arsenal the chance to progress to the Champions League final. Because it really did look, prior to the slipping incident, that Arsenal were fired up for the match, and if the lad had kept his feet and made the routine clearance that was needed, the game could have taken a different path altogether. Alas, it wasn’t quite clearly to be.
Arsenal certainly were quite shocked to find themselves a goal down inside five minutes. All their preparation would have been to go out and start strongly, try and nick a goal early on and then play from there. Instead, Man United had done in five minutes as much as they did in ninety the week before, despite that ninety being so incredibly one sided. And it was only to get worse for the Gunners when Ronaldo was fouled, albeit rather softly, about forty yards out from goal.
We all know that Ronaldo can hit the ball like few other people in the world. And I have to acknowledge that, despise the man as I do (he shouldn’t dive, he is good enough not to need to cheat), and twatty as he undoubtedly looks when he stands and prepares himself for his free kicks, his set pieces are starting to rival those of his shirt’s previous occupant in terms of their sheer deadliness.
But still, he really had no right to score from there. Yeah, we thought he might shoot, and yeah, it would probably sting Almunia’s palms, but he couldn’t realistically score, could he? Well, he did. Some will blame Almunia, but i think he saw it slightly late and I also think that when the ball is hit just so damned hard and travels just so damned fast, any ‘keeper in the world would have a job to stop it. As against Porto a few rounds ago, Ronaldo produced a miraculous, match winning moment, and it sealed the deal for United, and rendered the remaining 80 minutes of a promising match a mere triviality.
I’ll be honest, I seriously considered, right then and there, going back to bed. It was 6.40am, the match had been put beyond reasonable doubt, and a comeback wasn’t really on the cards. Man United had well and truly and as literally as I have ever seen done, knocked the stuffing out of Arsenal. In fact, the only reason I didn’t go to bed was because, ever the optimist, I put Arsenal’s recent 4-4 draw with Liverpool together with Chelsea’s recent 4-4 draw with Liverpool and thought: ‘well, stranger things have happened’.
As it was though, Arsenal may have well have gone home then. Try as they might (and as far as appearances went, it didn’t seem that they tried overly hard, though maybe credit to United for that) they simply couldn’t seem to trouble United, and for eighty minutes pretty much fulfilled the role of ‘ball of string’ to United’s ‘playful tomcat’. Eventually they went in for the kill once more, breaking faster than you could say “Arse-!”, it was Ronaldo to Park to Rooney, back to Ronaldo and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.
I would like to say that my strange, raving sort of match report/reaction ended there, but unfortunately it didn’t. United did concede a goal, and, even more unlikely, Arsenal scored one, when the referee gave a penalty against Darren Fletcher and sent him off. Robin van Persie showed Berbatov how to take a penalty, rasping it into the top right corner, and gave Arsenal a tiny crumb of respectability back, but that’s not important.
What has to be said, is that Fletcher is actually probably as worse off, if not more so, than Gibbs. He quite clearly made significant contact with the ball, and though the challenge was clumsy and did bring the player down, it was a really harsh penalty and, quite frankly, never a red card. That he is now almost certain to miss the final (because UEFA don’t do appeals) is a travesty. Fletcher is the sort of player who gets far fewer plaudits than he deserves and the Champions League Final would be just rewards for his stellar performances this season – for which a lot of the credit seems to have gone to Ryan Giggs.
And, as an Englishman with a penchant for criticising referees (I think it’s now officially a national passtime), I have to acknowledge that it isn’t just the English refs who are hopeless. This fella’, who was touted by our commentators as ‘one of Europe’s most decorated officials’, had an absolute ‘mare tonight. He broke play up far too frequently for fouls that just, well, weren’t, and gave a constant stream of mind-boggling decisions against both sides, which I guess was his only redeeming quality – consistency. The red card capped it all, and it was a shame really that what should have been both United’s big night and a showpiece in European football had it’s final world given by a fool with a whistle.
In all then, this match wasn’t quite what we expected it to be. The first ten minutes were brilliant, but they were really too good, in that, by the end of them, there was nothing left to be achieved. Poor Gibbs must be pitied and his morale nursed slowly back to health, and Fletcher must be consoled, as he was really the sole victim of a mostly pointless eighty minutes. He may be reprieved, if the ref concedes his mistake in his match report, but don’t count on it, they’re a proud and stubborn species.
Even though it wasn’t quite the classic we’d hoped for though, this match will be talked about for many years to come and really, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it (hell, that’s what I’m doing right now). So congratulations to United, it’s no mean feat to grace the final two years running, and c’mon Chelsea and Barcelona, let’s make more of a game of it tonight shall we?