IT WAS billed the ‘perfect’ semi-final but didn’t quite live up to the tag even after Ryan Giggs came on to make his 800th appearance.
But Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Arsenal has surely set up something really special for the second leg.
The result, secured by John O’Shea’s 17th-minute goal a day before his 28th birthday, will leave both sides reflecting on things they could have done better and both teams believing they can reach the final.
For United’s part they will wonder how they didn’t end the match with a bigger winning margin after enjoying the majority of possession and creating a string of chances, particularly in the first-half.
A worrying injury to defender Rio Ferdinand, who walked off grimacing in pain after a late collision with Nicklas Bendtner, added to the feeling that this was not quite the perfect end to a perfect tie for the home side, even though the champions remain slight favourites for next week’s leg.
For Arsenal, who produced a wobbly display early on, you suspect they will be content enough with the scoreline but will perhaps wonder how much better it could have been with more adventure.
In fact, just as Petr Cech was the hero for Chelsea in Barcelona 24 hours earlier, the Gunners were indebted to an excellent performance from goalkeeper Manuel Almunia who made six impressive saves in the first 30 minutes alone and was probably the difference between an acceptable result and a poor one.
“It’s a little early birthday present for me,” said O’Shea afterwards. “I’ll dedicate it to my dad because he’s been having a tough time of late and hopefully that will cheer him up a bit!
“We’re happy because we’re capable of scoring again in the second leg. But it’s definitely not over. Arsenal are a good team and they kept possession well at times. In the second leg we need to improve on retaining possession but overall we’re happy.”
O’Shea is right to be happy and the first half in particular was a fascinating contest that hinted at better things to come.
Ferguson claimed on the eve of the game that he was more interested in a clean sheet than scoring goals and in the end he got his way. But his comments looked more like a smoke screen in the early stages as his side begun the match at break-neck speed and could have been three or four ahead by the half hour mark. Almunia made an outstanding save from Rooney’s header as early as the first minute and made an even better one after 17 minutes, diving spectacularly to his left to somehow keep out O’Shea’s close-range shot.
Unfortunately for Almunia, however, his defenders were not as alert. Both Kieran Gibbs and Mikael Silvestre may have passed late fitness tests but neither were anywhere in sight when Carrick cleverly turned a corner back into the box and O’Shea, totally unmarked, rifled a shot high into the net.
The Waterford man had already been a menace down the right flank, where young Gibbs is still learning his trade and was perhaps understandably distracted by the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo.
At this stage Arsenal were shell-shocked and short of breath and it took until the 27th minute for them to find a shot on goal, Fabregas forcing a save from Edwin van der Sar following a neat turn and run from Theo Walcott, who had been marked out of the game until that point.
United almost went two up when Tevez beat Gibbs and crossed for Ronaldo at the far post — only for Almunia to produce another amazing save from close range.
Almunia was following in Cech’s footsteps, particularly when he bravely flung himself at Tevez’s feet and was kicked on the chin for his troubles.
The one consolation for Arsenal was that they settled down after that and begun to at least redress the possession figures, which stood at nearly 70% in United’s favour at one point, by keeping the ball for long periods. Even when United increased the tempo after the break Wenger’s side were never out of the tie, although if Ronaldo’s stunning dipping effort from 30 yards had hit the back of the net instead of the bar after 69 minutes things could have been different.
By that time Giggs had been brought on to make his 800th appearance for United and he was only denied a fairytale goal by an offside flag that looked harsh.
In many ways that decision should be cheered by neutrals, however. Because with Arsenal committed to attack in the second leg and United always dangerous on the break it should be quite a spectacle at the Emirates next Tuesday.
Still time for a perfect ending.
Manchester United subs: Giggs for Anderson 67, Berbatov for Tevez 67.
Arsenal subs: Bendtner for Walcott 71, Eduardo for Adebayor 82.
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