Arsenal FA Cup favourites after stormy quarter-final
Danny Welbeck sealed Arsenal's victory in a match packed with memorable goals, world-class saves and unforgiveable slips
Manchester United 1 Arsenal 2. Danny Welbeck dumped his former club out of the FA Cup as Arsenal tasted success at Old Trafford for the first time since 2006.
The Gunners' reward for their quarter-final victory was sweet indeed, drawing Bradford or Reading in the semi-final, and thus making them firm favourites to retain the trophy they won last year.
It was a wonderful encounter of blood and thunder between the FA Cup's two most successful sides (both with 11 wins to their name) but it was Arsenal who emerged triumphant in a game that had just about everything: two goals of stunning quality, a sending off, one of the best saves you're ever likely to see, some appalling dives and a mistake that will haunt Antonio Valencia for the rest of his days.
The two teams entered the arena to the sound of the Rocky theme tune and that set the tone for what followed. With Wayne Rooney playing up front, United's attack had more edge than has been the case of late, while Arsenal had left Olivier Giroud on the bench. Arsene Wenger instead opted for the pace of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was at the heart of all Arsenal's early attacks and it was his surging run on 25 minutes that led to the opening goal. Leaving Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia for dead, the 'Ox' picked out Nacho Monreal on the left of the penalty area, and the Spanish full-back hammered the ball past David de Gea.
The 9,000 travelling fans went wild but their joy was short-lived. United's £60m man, Angel Di Maria, picked out Wayne Rooney with a pass of sublime precision, and the England captain's powerful header tested the strength of the Arsenal net.
United finished the half the stronger of the two teams but Di Maria wasted two good opportunities and Arsenal made him pay after the break.
With the game still being played at a frantic tempo mistakes became more numerous but no one expected Valencia to hand the visitors their second goal on a plate. His weak backpass to de Gea was pounced on by Welbeck, whose deft first touch took the ball past the Spaniard and allowed the former United striker to fire the ball into the empty goal.
Welbeck's celebrations were unrestrained, and so was Di Maria a few minutes later when referee Michael Oliver – who had a good game in trying circumstances – booked the Argentinian for simulation. Di Maria objected to the yellow card, and grabbed the referee by the back of his shirt. "Woah!" exclaimed a startled Oliver, before brandishing a red card.
Di Maria got what he deserved, as did Adnan Januzaj when he was shown a yellow card for a dive of even greater absurdity. It was the ugly side of United's game in contrast to the beauty of the save de Gea made from Santi Cazorla's volley; it was one of the saves of the season – of any season – and he made a second fine stop late on as Arsenal looked to kill off the game.
They couldn't, but Welbeck's strike proved decisive and when the draw for the semi-final was announced it capped a great night for the Gunners. Aston Villa will meet either Liverpool or Blackburn in the other semi but Arsenal's toughest opponent in their match is likely to be complacency.
"We will be favourites," admitted Wenger. "[But] what is important is to focus now on the Premier League. On Saturday we play West Ham and then the Champions League, we'll see what happens. It's a long way away now."
For United, all that remains is the fight to finish in the top four and qualify for next season's Champions League. There'll be no silverware for the second successive season (something that last happened at Old Trafford in the last 1980s) and manager Louis van Gaal couldn't hide his frustration at the manner of the defeat. "We don't lose from the opponent, we lost from ourselves and it was very disappointing," he reflected. As for Di Maria's sending-off, the Dutchman had scant sympathy for his hot-headed striker. "I think he's touched the referee and that's forbidden in every country," said van Gaal. "So he has no excuses."