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Where now for Arsenal?

At the end Sir Alex Ferguson shook the hand of Arsene Wenger in the curtest of courtesies and then they went their separate ways.

Ferguson to Rome with his Manchester United side to try to become the first team successfully to defend the Champions League trophy.

Wenger back to plot a way to keep together a young side whose biggest stars must wonder whether they will ever win a trophy of any kind at the Emirates.

When Wenger studies the video of a semi-final in which United beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates and 4-1 on aggregate no doubt he will curse his luck.

He will wonder what might have been if teenaged fullback Kieran Gibbs had not slipped for the first goal.

He will muse on whether goalkeeper Manuel Almunia could have moved more swiftly across his goal for Cristiano Ronaldo's thunderous second.

But, if he is honest, and Wenger usually is, eventually he will come up with a much more simple explanation for why United are contesting the Champions League final in Rome.

They are the better team. Not just because they have players with the fire power of Ronaldo, who revelled in the central striking position after Ferguson had decided to start with Dimitar Berbatov on the bench.

Not just because the excellent Wayne Rooney has to be the most consistent player in the English game right now and midfielder Michael Carrick the most underrated.

But because United's unsung players give the team such a solid foundation. From the energy supplied by Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park in midfield to the composure which emanates from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, surely the best central defensive partnership in Europe.

Add all that together and you do not need luck. But Ferguson would accept it all the same. And on a sorry night for Arsenal it came in spades.

Actually, you could argue the entire tie was decided on two freaks of nature.

Freak One: If ever a goal set the tone for a football match then it was the one dispatched by Park after just eight minutes.

Not because of the quality of the strike, although it was the neatest of chips over the body of Almunia, but because of the quirk of fate which saw a teenage fullback cruelly punished.

Poor Gibbs. The ball slid across goal by Ronaldo carried no threat. It was there to be punted in the direction of the Holloway Road. And Gibbs would have done so if he had not slipped inexplicably at the vital moment. He slid one way, the ball the other, on to the right foot of Park. It was no surprise when the distraught Gibbs failed to appear for the second half.

Freak Two: Ronaldo stood over the ball at a free-kick 40 yards from goal. Optimistic, it seemed, even for the world player of the year. But then came that familiar straight-on run-up, that explosive detonation as foot met ball and the ripple of the net as Almunia dived but in hope more than expectation.

Wenger sat with his head in his hands. All those rallying calls. All that work on the training ground. All that belief in youngsters who play pretty patterns but too rarely deliver in the biggest matches.

All gone in 11 minutes.

Arsenal had a fighting chance at 1-0 down from the first leg at Old Trafford. At 3-0 down on aggregate the Gunners were gonners.

But United's third on the night was no freak. In design and application it was a thing of rare beauty. A goal which should be run and rerun every time anyone dares to ask why football is the most popular game on the planet.

A Ronaldo back heel to Park, swept on to Rooney, played into the patch of Ronaldo in a raid clinical in its execution. Quite magnificent.

Diehard Gooners might not have appreciated the humiliation heaped upon them, but they would have respected such quality.

Yet while Ferguson and United march on, with the one sour note the harsh sending off of Fletcher and the resulting penalty by Robin Van Persie, what now for Wenger?

It is four years since Arsenal won a trophy, the FA Cup against United.

This had been Wenger's opportunity to step out of Ferguson's shadow. Instead he was given an excruciating lesson in just how wide is the gulf which separates the clubs. And all he could hear at the end was the United faithful singing: "Always look on the bright side of life."

Football can be such a cruel game.

Belfast Telegraph


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