By Richard Clarke
So Arsenal's long, proud FA Cup record is over.
Arsène Wenger's side had gone unbeaten in 18 ties before they met Manchester United in today's Semi-Final at Villa Park. Since defeat to Liverpool in the 2001 Final at the Millennium Stadium, Arsenal had returned to Cardiff twice - and had taken the trophy back with them each time.
However they will not be there this May.
Edu hit the bar in the opening minutes but, at half time, Manchester United deserved the lead given to them by Paul Scholes in the 32nd minute.
Arsenal had much more joy after bringing the big guns off the bench just past the hour. Sir Alex Ferguson's side groaned under the weight of the pressure but, crucially, they did not break.
However this defeat is not one to brood upon. For one thing Arsenal have two more major trophies in their sights. For another there is no time. They play Chelsea in the Champions League Quarter-Final second leg on Tuesday.
The FA Cup run might be over but Arsenal's season is nowhere near the same.
In the build-up to this game, there were question marks over both sides. In the end neither top-scorer started.
With Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg in mind, Thierry Henry was left on the bench so Jeremie Aliadiere began up front in only the seventh start of his Arsenal career.
Ruud van Nistlerooy was not involved for Manchester United after hurting his knee in the Premiership game between the two teams last Sunday.
Arsenal's main injury worry, Freddie Ljungberg, started on the right-side of midfield.
Wenger's side had already made history by reaching their 24th FA Cup Semi-Final. Victory would send them to a fourth successive Final - another first.
But then history was smeared all over this game.
Much of the pre-game hype had centred on 1999, when these two teams met at the same round at the same venue. Those of us who were there remember that the first game was dull, goalless affair. Only the replay had any life.
This afternoon the touchpaper was lit as soon as the two teams kicked off. Within the first three minutes Dennis Bergkamp raced clear. He was forced wide by Manchester United keeper Ray Carroll who blocked the Dutchman's shot. He recovered the ball and, with the No 1 stranded, picked his spot with a trademark curler. However by that time Wes Brown had got back on the line and stooped to head clear.
A minute later, a corner found Edu in space on the edge of the area. His delicate chip beat Carroll but it bounced high off the bar. The ball seemed to take an age to drop and, of the two Arsenal players waiting, Kolo Toure rose highest. He arched his frame in to position to nod goalward but Carroll managed to claw the ball off the line.
Frenetic was an understatement.
The pace continued unabated. This was blood-and-thunder cup tie between to sides who were always going to try to outscore each other. As a result the play swung from end-to-end.
Manchester United began to restore parity after Arsenal's offensive start. The tricky Cristiano Ronaldo and the experienced Giggs were testing 18-year-old left back Gael Clichy to full. But the French Under-21 international responded well and, in the 12th minute, only his hook tackle prevented Ole Gunnar Solskjaer getting a clear sight of goal.
Robert Pires planted a header just over the bar but the tide was starting to turn the way of Manchester United and, in the 32nd minute, they took the lead. Giggs found space down the right and sent a low, hard cross into the area.
It found Scholes 10 yards out and the England midfielder dispatched a rocket shot past Lehmann.
Arsenal were rattled but, in first half injury-time, Pires floated over a free-kick and Vieira's header skimmed off the outside of the post.
There seemed little different at the start of the second half so, 12 minutes in, came THE change. Alaidiere and Pires off, Jose Antonio Reyes and Henry on.
Suddenly Arsenal were menacing and, immediately after the switch, pinned Manchester United in their own box.
Bergkamp nearly worked his way through the massed ranks of their defence then Reyes used his pace to burst clear but stumbled as he set himself up to shoot. But, despite all that, Carroll was not called upon.
With 15 minutes left, Wenger had his last roll of the dice. Kanu replaced Edu and Arsenal went 4-3-3. It came a few minutes before Ferguson had brought on defender Phil Neville for striker Solskjaer. The tactics were obvious.
Arsenal now poured forward, they had to. They got crosses into the area but they were either blocked or, having reached their intended player, the shots were smothered.
It was tense, nervous finale for both sides.
Substitute David Bellion should have got a second in the final minutes but he just failed to get a touch at the far post. Then, just after the injury time board had been raised, Ljungberg crossed to the far post and Reyes could only scuff a shot into the arms of Carroll.
The game was lost but, make no mistake, there is still much to be won this season.
|Campbell carries the ball past Solskjaer||Toure sees his header hit the bar|
|Silvestre shadows Aliadiere||Edu commands the midfield|
|Bergkamp bursts past Keane||Vieira shields the ball from Keane|
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