Gooners and Nike execs are already familiar with the Cesc Fabregas Show. Tonight at the Emirates, it was the Cristiano Ronaldo Experience.
Though Ji-sung Park started off the scoring for Manchester United on a Kieran Gibbs mistake, it was Ronaldo who sealed the deal for the Red Devils on a searing free kick. Eleven minutes into the biggest match of the year for both teams, and Manchester United fan’s could confidently book their tickets to Rome.
The result is less surprising than how it transpired. Quite simply, tonight’s leg in London was a repeat of the first leg. Only this time, Manchester United got the goals they deserved, given their dominance over the 180 minutes.
With Alex Ferguson’s side beginning their typical late-season surge, Arsenal seem the reverse of them, with players drifting in and out of injury, and a general lack of sharpness when it comes to their passing game. The security of fourth place and Aston Villa’s poor run may have made the Gunners a bit complacent, but more likely, the simple fact is that Arsenal are not yet the team to compete at the highest level.
Andrei Arshavin has adapted to the league quickly, and there are some true adolescent gems at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger’s young team continue to show flashes of brilliance to instill optimism, but in the end, lack the consistency and tenacity required to touch silver. There is no doubt Wenger is the one of the best spotters of young talent. Unfortunately for him, Ferguson is the best builder of teams.
There is an appreciation of Arsenal and what they represent, with their passing ethos and enthusiastic side of youngsters. But how long must we seek to find words to explain the ups and downs of a Jekyll and Hyde side? Callow, inexperienced, petulant. Naive, slight, lacking that cutting edge. All of these are often thrown about when the Gunners are torn apart by a mid-table side, let alone humiliated at home by a top four side.
The debate continues over the efficacy of Wenger’s decision to remain young and lean. Fiscal prudence is always more desired than extravagance in the transfer window, and Wenger has built and preserved his club better than anyone. Except Alex Ferguson, who coincidentally, finds himself on friendlier terms with his French nemesis since Arsenal have won nothing in the last five years.
You can argue for more depth in all positions, more height at the back, more bite in front of the back four, and less talking from Emmanuel Adebayor and Nicklas Bendtner. And perhaps less spitting from Cesc Fabregas. But there is no denying that this is a team lacking the fire to compete with Manchester United.
There are elements of Wenger’s inaction that hurt his club’s chances, just as there are elements of his thrift that place the club in good standing for the future. Arsenal essentially are battling above their weight-class, both on the pitch and the bench, despite record revenue. At some point, Wenger is going to have to take a chance and splash out some cash. Arshavin was always the wanted man, but the lateness of the move ruled him ineffectual for the majority of the season, and absent for the Champions League.
There cannot be an argument that Arsenal lack a few things in their side. In the long-term, it may be players, but today it was guile and rhythm, those things we expect from an Arsene Wenger side.
Just how long the best players on the team will wait out the building process remains to be seen. Perhaps Arsenal will lift some silver next year, but until a statement of intent is made, either in the transfer window or in performance, it remains boys against men, as it was today at the Emirates.