Manchester United v Arsenal
I've not hidden, or conversely, screamed and shouted about it on these pages but for those of you who don't know, I'm a Manchester City fan. As a bitter (when other fans want their most obvious rivals to lose it's rivalry, when Manchester City fans do it's bitterness. You know the rules.), in 99.9% of the games Manchester United have played since I've been six years old I've wanted the opposition to win. This one was to be no different but my willingness for Arsenal to progress this quarter-final was, by my own rough estimates, about 800 times of that I wanted Liverpool to beat them last week. This, some of you may have gathered wasn't to do with any dislike of Liverpool (not that that doesn't exist neither.) The fact that City were, at this point still in the competition, and looked to have a good chance of progressing to the semi-final themselves made my willingness for United to go out far, far greater.
The fact that they are top of the league at the moment is reason enough to want an opposition team out of a cup competition you are in. That I might have to share the first time I get to see the team I support play at Wembley with them overshadows that immeasurably (two things here: I don't think semi's should be played at Wembley neither. My brother got married the day of the 1999 Division 2 Play-Off Final. OK a third: yes it still bothers me). I hate games against them. In times gone by I've not felt able to eat anything on the morning of them. There's enjoyment in winning them, pretty ridiculous enjoyment, but my overriding emotion throughout is to get through it without getting beat. You wouldn't have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of English football to know that in the last 25 years or so to know City have failed in that task more often than not.
So, it was with slight trepidation I sat down to watch this tie but it was with hope 'The' Arsenal would save me this worst case scenario.
After the usual ITV FA Cup opening credits of some bloke and his son in an East-End (there's no proof it is East-End, I'm just saying it is) greasy spoon wearing indecipherable club colours followed by some Sin City-esque (?) great mate and non-sport liking brother Ian would put me right on this if he'd ever seen it)) graphics we saw clips of the fans of both teams arriving at the Theatre of Dreams. It's hardly new news but, yes, there was inevitably someone wearing a half United half Arsenal 'friendship' scarf. Probably wouldn't be the top of everyone's list but of all of modern football's ills it is the every match frequency and ludicrousness of 'friendship' scarves I have probably moaned about the most.
Former Middlesbrough managers Gareth Southgate and Gordon Strachan joined Jonathan Chiles in the studio and discussed which team needed the win more after recent disappointing results and the longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson's and Arsene Wenger's 'desire.' It shouldn't come as much surprise that I wasn't paying a great deal of attention at this point as it's the kind of cliché-ridden chat we hear on a daily basis but in my defence I was also trying to write the prologue up there ^^^.
After highlights from the days earlier quarter-final in which I admired the travelling Bolton fans level of 'going-up' for their late winner at St.Andrews we saw the teams come out. We were then treated to the bizarre sight of United's Javier Hernández on his knees on the half-way line having a good old pray. For all I know he may do this every game he starts but not having been fortunate to see many of their games this season it was a first view I got of this behaviour.
Now I don't seem to have all the notes I made at the time and (possibly in a bit of a strop) I deleted the game of the TV planner on Saturday night so my description of the match and coverage action isn't quite as comprehensive as it could be. What I have got though is that after about 15 minutes one of them twins headed over from the other one's cross. Clive Tyldesley then proceeded to tell us for the remainder of the half that they were twins, they're very close and often try and confuse their team-mates and staff at United's training base by answering to the other one's name.
Despite, to this neutral's eye, Arsenal's possessional and territorial superiority their reluctance to get a ball in the box or threaten Edwin Van der Sar's goal was causing me to use swearwords in the sanctity of my own front room. The swearing upped it's intensity when United took the lead just before the half-hour when twin no.2, Fabio, put them in front from a few yards out after Hernadez's header had been parried by Manuel Almunia. While at half-time Southgate praised the original header from Hernandez I personally felt the stand-out quality was Wayne Rooney's cross that led to it.
Arsenal again seemed to get in strong positions for the remainder of the first half, and the opening of the second, but due to some indecision from their players and some great keeping from Van der Sar were unable to find the equaliser. The contest and my viewing of the game was effectively ended when Rooney made it 2-0 five minutes into the second half. Having minutes earlier made the well-ballanced statement “there's no f****** way Arsenal are gonna f******* score here” I then astutely added “there's no f****** way we're not gonna get those c**** if we win tomorrow.” Mrs DTVSr, who was lovingly preparing the evening meal in the adjacent kitchen, gave me a resigned 'seen it all before' look. I'm quite sure that was in relation to me swearing at some some unfolding TV sporting action rather than Manchester United progression to the semi-finals.
I tried to take my mind of the prospect of a Wembley meeting with United at times on Saturday night but was unable to. My thought process generally went in this order:
- Tomorrow is now a lose/lose scenario: We either have our most embarassing Cup Quarter final defeat in living memory (which would be some achievement) against Reading, or we could go through and have the horrible prospect of playing United at Wembley.
- In the ridiculously unlikely scenario we beat Reading and haven't drawn United who do I want us to get?
- Would playing them in the semi be preferable as a potential final meeting would top it in terms of 'worst-case sceanrioness'?
- Why am I presuming we'll beat the Biscuitmen having watched them deservedly win at Everton and with our recent performances in the week before.
Those thoughts ran on repeat for the remainder of Saturday night.
It was a more optimistic Dave who woke up on Sunday. Yes we would beat Reading, and there was a two in three possibility we wouldn't draw them. Watching the start of the Stoke v West Ham quarter the missus asked me who I wanted to win. My response of “West Ham if we draw the winners, Stoke if United do” highlighted my new found optimism that this might not actually lead to this most dreaded of ties at the famous twin-tow...ahem arch thing.
Then it happened. Having shared a cab to the ground with four blokes I'd had a chat with while enjoying a few pre-match ales in the city-centre, we heard on the radio that Bolton had drawn Stoke. If there was a passenger in that cab who didn't mutter the immortal words 'for f**** s***' then I'm...scrap that. We all said it.
In the 15 minutes or so before the match I made the decision on behalf of the crowd that we had to be defiant about this now. A comfortable win and we could all sing about winning cups and so on. And a couple of hours later? Following a nervy win, we were all singing about winning cups and so on. It was brilliant as well. For all that I've been asked if it feels different going to City in the last couple of years, the elation after a win in a big game (and this was a big, big game) is exactly the same and it was fantastic.
To the semi then. Blimey. I've already had enough stomach-churning moments thinking about it and we've got a month to go. I wouldn't say I'm confident about the game, but I'm not dreading it as much as I previously would have. Can't say the same about the day, I am dreading that, but the match should see two well matched teams both with a chance of getting through. And if thing's go as disastrously wrong as we all fear they could? Well, I'll always have my half City half United 'friendship' scarf to comfort me.
WatchBolton v StokeManchester City v Manchester UnitedWeekend of 16th/17th April on ITV and ESPN