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Manchester United Fixtures

Revamped United Down Arsenal, Derby Date Awaits In FA Cup Semis

Anytime Manchester United defeat Arsenal, it’s a reason to have some extra pep in your step the next day and likely for the next day after that.

But Saturday’s FA Cup quarterfinal win, in the situation it came in and in the manner in which United claimed the spoils, could be considered our most important win of the season to date.

After the back-to-back defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool, a third straight defeat to a fierce rival would not only have been a tough, tough pill to swallow, but it also would’ve sent United going into a must-win Champions League tie against Marseille with the worst momentum possible.

Arsenal needed the win every bit as much, after losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham in shocking fashion (they call it shock, I call it comedy…same difference, no?) and then exiting the Champions League rather controversially at the hands of Barcelona.

Both sides being without their top playmaker necessitated a little tweaking selection-wise, but even though Arsenal would manage to create no shortage of chances even without Cesc Fabregas on the pitch, it was Sir Alex’s creativity with his selections that won the day.

Journalists and fans alike often reserve the most words for managers, coaches, players, and officials when they get it wrong or are perceived to, and Fergie has seen a fair share of criticism directed at him for the way United have played this season and the lack of continuity in United’s starting lineups.

So for him to do what he did on Saturday, in one of the most important matches of the season, was a gamble of the highest order. Get it wrong, and more than being vilified high and low (wouldn’t be the first time, likely wouldn’t be the last either), it could’ve resulted in a third straight defeat and an FA Cup exit.

But with options so severely stunted, why not take the chance? In an age where news is seemingly revealed before it happens and it takes only one somewhat well-connected source for a secret to become known by everyone and everyone who follows them on Twitter (and thanks to that nifty re-tweet bit, their friends and their friends’ friends too, eh?), and after more than 24 years on the job, Fergie managed to spring a surprise on the masses. So much for the old adage about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks, at least in this instance.

Not only were the moves right because, as we’d come to see, they bore similarities to the selections and formations that some have been calling and hoping for. There was, to be honest, no choice about being not revealing beforehand the starting XI and how they’d be organized and utilized. No knowledge of what United were going to do meant no time for Arsene Wenger and his troops to prepare for it, but at the same time, you have to wonder if they’d have been able to prevent it from working even if they knew what was coming.

Wayne Rooney was effective in a deeper role, and he looked much like the Rooney we’d all love to see, giving 110% for the team and doing what was required of him all around. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s now on a run of three goals in four games and six in nine, and he could’ve had even more than just the one that all but put paid to Arsenal’s hopes of a win. And while we often wonder about the usefulness of John O’Shea, the jack of all trades proved himself to be just that once again on Saturday.

The move(s) that garnered the most attention, however, were those of putting the da Silva twins on the flanks, not as defenders, but as wingers, which no doubt elicited an ‘about bloody time!’ from more than a few of the United faithful. Fabio and Rafael added vim, vigor, verve, and vitality on the flanks, and on top of being able to terrorize Arsenal with what we’ve all seen they can offer in attack, they were at the ready to defend when needed.

And then there was an added bonus. For six months now, we’ve wondered how effective Antonio Valencia would be when he returned. We finally received an answer on Saturday, and though I was optimistic that he’d be able to play well upon returning, even I was surprised at how well he slotted back into the swing of things like he’d never been out. It was only 45 minutes, but it was a 45 minutes that everyone, and especially a certain #10, have to be over the moon to see.

The biggest plaudits of the day should be reserved for someone whose starting position will only be up for grabs in the near future because he’s vacating by choice. Whenever Arsenal did seriously threaten, there Edwin van der Sar was, denying the visitors time and time again with saves that belie his 40 years. As much as Fergie’s switches fooled Arsenal, van der Sar’s saves frustrated them, and Arsenal were mentally gassed even before Johan Djourou’s season-ending shoulder injury poured even more salt on their wounds.

While it still wasn’t the kind of brilliant all-around showing that will please everyone, it was the kind of performance that was needed, and even better, it garnered the result that was needed. Of course, one win isn’t enough to say that order has been restored, but we needed it heading into tomorrow’s clash with Marseille, and unlike last time out, there’s a wealth of positives to take from Saturday, not least the whole being able to send Arsenal packing part.

So then, it’s on to the semis at Wembley, and it’ll be derby day in London, as we’ll be up against City, who edged Reading 1-0. Whoever wins will be a prohibitive favorite in the final, as Stoke City and Bolton will lock horns in the other semi. There are few things that surpass the joy of beating Arsenal in a situation like this one, and one of those things is being able to do the same to City. I’d say all the better if they’re unable to overturn their deficit against Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League, but that’s not being very nice, is it?

Some might look at having to play extra games at this juncture of the season as a negative, depending on which competition they consider the biggest priority (I say all of ’em, because I want United to win, win, win no matter what), but we have the options to be able to handle competing on three fronts, or we soon will, at least.

With Valencia now back and likely starting sooner rather than later, and Nani set to return tomorrow instead of next month as initially feared, opportunities to see the twins in those exact roles again this season will be scarce. But I think I’m not alone in saying that with what we’ve seen this season on the injury front, it’s nice to know you have options, and good ones at that.