Manchester United are just one step away from becoming the first club to retain the UEFA Champions League trophy after inflicting a crushing 3-1 defeat on Arsenal to book their passage to the final. Buy Champions League Final Tickets
Arsenal’s hopes effectively vanished inside the opening eleven minutes after first Park Ji-Sung, capitalising on a slip by Kieran Gibbs, and then Cristiano Ronaldo, catching Manuel Almunia out with a free-kick, struck for United. Trailing 3-0 on aggregate there was no way back for the demoralised home side and Ronaldo salted their wounds with the evening’s third goal just after the hour. The only downside for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team was the dismissal of Darren Fletcher, who will now miss the final, for fouling Cesc Fàbregas to concede the penalty from which Robin van Persie struck Arsenal’s futile late reply.
The Arsenal Stadium was awash with swirling red and white flags before kick-off but blue proved the colour here, United winning in the same all-blue they wore when lifting the European crown for the first time at Wembley in 1968. A short distance across north London they left their fans dreaming of a fourth triumph on 27 May after shattering Arsenal’s five-year unbeaten home record in Europe. They did so in style although there is no doubt Arsenal lent a helping hand, pressing the self-destruct button by presenting United with the all-important first goal here. There seemed no danger as Ronaldo’s low ball headed towards Gibbs but the teenager slipped and allowed the ball to run on to Park who, though off balance, lifted it over Almunia.
If it felt in that moment that all the noise and energy and optimism had drained out of the stadium, things rapidly got worse. Arsenal had not conceded a home goal in the competition for 514 minutes but shipped a second just three minutes later as Ronaldo did what he had done in Porto in the previous round – scoring from a position where few players would even contemplate shooting, beating Almunia with an audacious free-kick from 40 metres out and to the right of goal. Almunia, who had done so much to keep Arsenal in the tie at Old Trafford, seemed caught by surprise, diving in vain across his goal as Ronaldo flashed the ball over the two-man defensive wall and inside the near post.
Arsenal now needed four goals but there seemed little chance of that against a United side opening up their shell-shocked opponents with ease. Arsène Wenger’s men could have conceded again as Rooney’s curling strike drew a fingertip save from Almunia. Emmanuel Eboué replaced the unfortunate Gibbs at the interval but United were soon threatening again as Ronaldo drew a fine near-post stop from Almunia. Such is the quality of United’s counterattacking that it was little surprise when the champions struck an exquisitely worked third after 61 minutes.
Ronaldo’s backheel to Park was the spark for a lightning counter: the Korean sped forward, supplied Rooney down the left and the England forward returned the ball crossfield to meet Ronaldo’s run into the box where the Portuguese swept home. “We’re going to Italy” sang the happy United fans but unfortunately for Fletcher, he will not be after he was adjudged to have tripped Fàbregas prior to Van Persie’s 76th-minute penalty. Still there is no question that United, unbeaten in the competition for 24 months, will be travelling to Rome in expectation rather than hope.
It was an impressive performance by Ronaldo and Manchester United. The two quick goals killed off the game, but they had a composure and maturity that Arsenal lacked. Arsenal reminded me of Man United three years ago when they were beaten by AC Milan in the semi-finals. A young team that was just lacking some experience. Now three years later Rooney and Ronaldo have grown into even bigger stars and they have the experience to perform on these big stages. Give Arsenal a year or two and their young stars might be the ones reaching the European Cup Final.