In the books this will go down as an unremarkable 2-0 victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford. Unremarkable because Manchester United has now scored four victories in a row over the Londoners. In truth, with Sir Alex Ferguson selecting a line-up few could have predicted – including seven defenders – United’s victory was anything but ordinary.
The Scot had sprung a major pre-match surprise, naming both da Silva brothers in the United side but in unfamiliar wide midfield positions. With John O’Shea and Darron Gibson completing a highly unfamiliar midfield Ferguson sent out a strong signal that next week’s Champions League fixture with Marseille takes precedent.
It mattered little as goals from Fabio da Silva and Wayne Rooney fired Ferguson’s side into a semi-final date at Wembley and potentially a first final since 2005. It’s also a win that will surely have a crushing effect on the visitors – direct rivals for the Premier League title – who have now lost in the Carling Cup final, been dumped out of the Champions League and removed from the FA Cup within a devastating two-week period.
For Untied the spoils. For both sides it could well be a season defining result.
“Having a lot of injuries in midfield, I had to come up with a plan or an idea where I could utilise energies,” Ferguson told MUTV of the seemingly bizarre starting line-up.
“The two Da Silvas are such keen and enthusiastic boys, I thought they could do that. I couldn’t risk Scholes and Giggs because of Tuesday’s game against Marseille, such a vital game for the club, so Darron Gibson had to play as the only natural midfielder. John O’Shea has played there before but he’s obviously a centre-back or a full-back.
“Considering we made these major changes with a host of injuries in the club, I think we can be well pleased with the result.”
Indeed, the United side should have filled Arsène Wenger’s outfit with confidence despite the morale-sapping defeat in Barcelona last week. But if anything United began the more positive though, with the da Silva brothers, Rooney and Javier Hernández forming a dynamic, if surprising, front quartet. And Rafael – the younger brother by just 10 minutes – should have put the hosts in front, contriving to head Fabio’s cross over when a goal should have come.
Arsenal though shared the majority of possession, as has been the pattern in recent meetings, without providing the finishing touch. Indeed, when the Londoners fashioned an opening veteran Edwin van der Sar provided the hosts with yet another example of why he will be so missed at Old Trafford. The Dutchman saved well from Robin van Persie, before pulling off a string of second-half stops to earn a deserved man-on-the-match award.
If Rafael had missed earlier than Fabio made no mistake on the half-hour to give United a crucial lead. The Brazilian youngster fired into the roof of the visitors’ net after smart work by Rooney to find Hernández whose header was pushed into Fabio’s path for the goal.
The goal provided a huge boost to United, whose endeavor was not always matched by quality use of the ball. No surprise perhaps given the line-up. However, Antonio Valencia’s return at half-time provided another tonic, with the Ecuadorian returning to the United side after breaking his ankle in September.
But it was to van der Sar that United owed much as Arsenal threatened to break United’s control of the game. First the 40-year-old, who has promised to retire in the summer, twice saved from Laurent Koscielny after the defender had been played in by Van Persie. Later the United legend saved from Marouanne Chamakh and substitute Tomas Rosicky to draw chants of “Fergie sign him up” and “one more year” from the Old Trafford crowd.
In the meantime United doubled the advantage on 50 minutes, with Rooney heading home after Hernández’ shot was blocked by Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal net. It was a sixth goal in eight games for the former Evertonian, who played in a markedly deeper role against Arsenal to no little effect. Indeed, with the Mexican playing on the shoulders of the visitors’ defence there was yet more evidence that Rooney and Hernández – not Berbatov – may become the most productive pairing for Ferguson’s outfit.
Yet, Arsenal continued to press and gained both territorial advantage and possession as the match drew to a close. Here, United’s defence proved its worth once again, with Chris Smalling amply demonstrating his potential. And the Reds could have added to the lead, with Arsenal increasingly leaving gaps at the back. Almunia pushed out one shot from Hernández, before Rooney and substitute Ryan Giggs also tested the Arsenal stopper.
“It was an intense game as we expected it to be and both teams played their part in different stages of the game,” added the United boss.
“The first goal opened up the game and there could have been a lot of goals for both sides in the second half. Arsenal had a lot of chances in the second half and Edwin van der Sar made four or five fantastic saves. On the other side, their goalkeeper made three saves from Chicharito while Rooney went through with a good chance. There was nothing much between the two teams but we could have won by a few more goals.”
It’s a result that will provide United with a huge lift ahead of Tuesday’s match with Marseille. As so often this season, whatever is in the water at Old Trafford – it works.
United – 4231 – Van der Sar; Brown, Smalling, Vidic, Evra (Scholes 80); O’Shea, Gibson; Rafael (Giggs 64), Rooney, Fabio Da Silva (Valencia 46); Hernandez.
Arsenal – 433 – Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Gibbs; Diaby (Ramsey 72), Nasri, Denilson (Chamakh 59), Wilshere, Arshavin (Rosicky 72); Van Persie.
Attendance – 74,693
Man of the Match – van der Sar
Possession: United 46% – 54% Arsenal
Attempts: 11 – 18
On Target: 6 – 11
Corners: 4- 4
Fouls: 6- 4