Victory for the neutral as semi-final finely poised

NOT quite the feast in Old Trafford after the famine in Barcelona, but only the gods of football — and Arsenal’s goalkeeper — will really know how last night’s second Champions’ League semi-final didn’t send the scoreboard into overdrive.

Forget mind games, forget managerial feuds, forget even managers kissing and making up — sometimes, perhaps even at the best of times, football is really all about the footballers.

Last night confirmed that while Arsenal can lay claim to some class acts, it’s Manchester United who are blessed with an unmatchable abundance of game-changing, match-winning individual talent.

But it was also a night on which they came up against at least one Arsenal player who was up to that daunting challenge and, in an accurate reflection of the overall balance of play at Old Trafford, it was the Gunners’ very last line of defence, keeper Manuel Almunia, who made the difference.

Yes, Arsenal have a world-class playmaker in Cesc Fabregas, a potent target man in Emmanuel Adebayor and a speedy tyro in Theo Walcott but you only had to look at who Alex Ferguson was able leave on the bench last night — Berbatov, Scholes, Giggs — to know that his starting side had to be extravagantly rich in attacking threat.

Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez — with any one of those on fire, United are entitled to fancy their chances on any given night. When all three click — as Spurs found to their cost last week — it makes the Old Trafford team virtually unstoppable.

As it happens, Ronaldo was having one of his more under-whelming outings but it hardly mattered — so nervously preoccupied was young Kieran Gibbs by his mere presence on the pitch that John O’Shea was given the freedom of the right side to emerge as United’s unlikely goal hero.

Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez were irresistible, both vying for the man of the match garland with enormous applications of skill, energy and work rate. And in the first 45 minutes, the rest of the United outfield weren’t too far behind them as the home side threatened to blow Arsenal out of the Champions League before half-time in the first leg of the semi-final.

That they didn’t was largely down to another solo command performance, this one from Almunia in the Arsenal goal. And yet, with Cesc Fabregas testing Van Der Sar with a strong drive and Theo Walcott creating havoc with one slicing run into the box, there were worrying reminders for United that, even with Arsenal living on scraps, they too had a couple of players who could still whip up a gourmet feast.

Nevertheless, United should have been home and hosed long before their tempo and intensity began to wane in the second half. But even then, the home side almost got the additional goals their overall dominance deserved.

Ronaldo, briefly awaking from his slumbers, rattled the Arsenal crossbar with something close to ‘Porto – The Sequel’ and, on his 800th appearance for the club, the ageless Ryan Giggs had the ball in the net only to be denied by the most marginal of offside decisions.

Alex Ferguson’s decision to replace Tevez with Berbatov was hardly a just reward for the Argentinian’s massive input but Rooney, still showing the kind of ferocious desire which, allied to his natural ability, makes him such a formidable footballer, kept going right to the end.

Of course, one-nil being the most precarious of leads, United were almost caught cold when Van Der Sar — a virtual spectator for most of the game — was left flapping in the wind as Bendtner headed over the top. But that would have been a terrible injustice, even allowing for the more modest foothold Arsenal scratched out for themselves over the course of the second half.

Yet, the neutral can’t but be pleased by the narrowness of United’s victory. By hook or by crook, Wenger’s team go back to the Emirates with reason to believe that they can do to United what United did to them at Old Trafford.The only pity for Arsenal — and, indeed, for the neutral — is that they will have to do it without the cup-tied Andrei Arshavin, the Russian wizard whose current hot form would only add to the high quality of the entertainment value we are entitled to expect at the Emirates.

But with Arsenal having to chase the game and Manchester United so lethal on the counter-attack, it still seems a pretty safe bet that Round 2 will deliver on the only place where Round 1 really failed — the scoreboard.


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