Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United.... agg: 1-4.
The only thing that softened the blow tonight was my lack of expectation; but that in itself should perhaps be a greater source of disillusionment. It seems grimly fitting to me that days after Arsenal assured a fourth place league finish that for stretches of the season seemed unlikely, we were all provided with a cruel reminder of just why fourth place was ever in doubt in the first place. This is Wenger's worst ever Arsenal side. The general poor quality of the Premiership, and indeed European football in general, had previously masked this fact somewhat.
There was an element of good fortune in the way United took control, but the evidence of the remaining eighty minutes after the two early goals suggests that they could have won this game as and when they pleased.
Arsenal started with a decent tempo, and forced a couple of half chances; a tame Fabregas effort picked up a deflection that caused some panic, but after United weathered this fleeting storm, they mercilessly put the tie to bed.
First, after about seven minutes, Anderson released Ronaldo into the left side of the Arsenal area. The Portuguese prick's low cross seemed destined for Gibbs, but the youngster lost his footing as his momentum was carrying him back towards the goal. This slip proved fatal; the onrushing Park took control and stretched to dink the ball over an unconvincing Almunia and into the far corner of the net.
The crowd had started off in fine voice, but this stunned them into silence.
A few minutes later, the shit really hit the fan, as the folly of my claim only yesterday that Almunia is now "unlikely to drop a clanger" was ruthlessly exposed. A debatable, but probably correct, free kick was awarded against Van Persie some 35 yards out on United's right side. Ronaldo, the preening Portuguese prat, fired in his usual effort, and a good one it was. So good that our now-crumbling keeper somehow contrived to dive under it and allow it hit the net inside his near post. While there was fearsome power in the free kick it should have been a routine parry, having travelled a long way and arrived at a decent height.
In any case, the horse had clearly bolted. Heads dropped, and little to nothing was done to lift the mood for the remainder of the evening. What was most galling was the fact that Arsenal did not even make United play well to gain this advantage. Individual errors finished the tie as a contest before it had even begun. Also disappointing was the apparent lack of professional pride evinced by the players in the aftermath of these, admittedly crushing, early blows. I understand that the necessary four-goal haul was a daunting task at this point, but Arsenal's performance from here on in looked like a collective shrug of the shoulders in slow-motion, an all-too-easy acceptance of defeat. Either that, or the gulf in class between these two sides is more yawning than even I had thought.
Some may criticise the fans who departed after a sweeping counterattack involving Park, Ronaldo and Rooney ended with the Portuguese ponce adding a third. But what I'd say is this: the players, the team, they get the kind of fans they deserve sometimes. Most of the men in red failed to even provide a semblance of defiance after the ten minute mark or so. This team, it seems to me, is a character-free-zone. The fans could just have easily left after the second goal and they wouldn't have missed anything constructive from their team, any fight, any perspiration, let alone inspiration.
Van Persie blasted in a late penalty to put some respectability into an aggregate scoreline that frankly deserved none. The "foul" by Fletcher on Fabregas (again poor throughout) saw him receive a criminally harsh red card which means the combative Scot will miss the final.
As alluded to earlier, what is more painful tonight is not so much the way Arsenal folded, but the longer-term implications suggested. So many players look like they will not make the grade. What we may term the bigger characters in the squad- Kolo, Cesc- do not look capable of carrying the likes of Walcott and Djourou. Again Song was one of our better performers but he is no partner for Fabregas. The dynamism of Flamini is still sorely missed. In fact dynamism is something the team as a whole seem bereft of. Walcott merely flits in and out. Van Persie looked unfit for the most part. Adebayor was piss-poor again. I hope he leaves in the summer. In fact that might be a great bit of business, if Milan or whoever are stupid enough to pay good money for the guy. It could help fund the reinforcements that are so plainly needed.
Overall, it's not worth dwelling too much on this dark night of the soul for Arsenal football club. We can only hope that the lessons are learned. If it takes something as painful as this to wake Wenger from his overly-idealistic daydream, so be it.