Manchester United will defend their title as champions of Europe in Rome on May 27 after beating Arsenal 3-1 at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening.
Going into the game in North London with a 1-0 advantage from their first-leg win at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were two goals up inside the opening 12 minutes as Park Ji-sung capitalized on a defensive slip to open the scoring, before Cristiano Ronaldo scored a speculative free kick from distance.
Ronaldo put the game – and the tie – well and truly beyond Arsene Wenger’s outfit on the hour mark with a breakaway goal .
Robin van Persie, restored after overcoming a groin injury and having offered so much hope to Gunners fans with his presence, scored a consolation goal from the penalty spot after Darren Fletcher was wrongly adjudged to have hauled down Cesc Fabregas inside the United area.
Of greater significance for United however was the fact that a straight red card for the Scot means he will now miss the showpiece with either Chelsea or Barcelona in just over three weeks’ time.
The game had started so positively for Arsenal, with the home side looking sprightly and taking the battle to United immediately.
Kieran Gibbs made an early statement of intent by winning a midfield exchange and Fabregas had a shot deflected wide off Rio Ferdinand – an effort that for a moment looked to be heading in as a wrong-footed Edwin van der Sar watched on helplessly as the ball just bounced wide of his left post.
The Gunners were buoyed by the return of Robin van Persie to the starting line-up, and Wenger’s side were just as alert in defense as well as attack, with Kolo Toure intercepting an intended pass to Anderson to halt United’s first attack.
Then, in the space of three minutes, the game was turned on its head. First, an untimely and even more unfortunate slip from Gibbs when going to cut out a Ronaldo cutback from the by-line allowed Park to receive the ball at the far post.
The United midfielder appeared to fluff his first touch, but managed to fire the ball past Almunia as Gibbs tried desperately to recover. It was desperately unlucky on the young left back, but worse was to come for the hosts.
Eight minutes in and now requiring three goals to progress to the final, a decision from referee Roberto Rosetti to award a free-kick for a Van Persie challenge on Ronaldo led to a second on the night for United.
It was a foul that Claus Bo Larsen – the first leg referee – would most unlikely have given, such was his disdain for Ronaldo’s attempts to win shooting opportunities in the first encounter at Old Trafford.
However, at 41 yards from goal the Portuguese winger lined up an attempt at goal and hit a powerful, dipping effort that beat Almunia. It was a horrible mistake as the Spanish keeper – whose first-leg display had kept Arsenal in the tie – got down to Ronaldo’s zipping shot but failed to raise his fists in time to parry it.
So after 11 minutes Arsenal were in need of a four-goal salvo. The sense inside Emirates Stadium, which had so buzzed with anticipation in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of kick-off, was one of dejection and a realization that one of the all-time finest European comebacks would be needed to recover this tie.
Almunia restored some pride with a sharp save from a Rooney curler, and Ronaldo then sent a free header from the resulting corner wide. Arsenal were stunned, and their early vigor was dissipated.
United sensed that and pressed on, attacking with more fluidity than Arsenal who struggled to put together any real sequence of passes. The visiting midfield also did a much better job of protecting its back four as The Gunners labored to break through while United streamed forward on the counter-attack whenever the opportunity arose.
Samir Nasri provided a glimmer of the incisive nature which was needed from his side when dinking a cross in for Fabregas, but the Spaniard’s looping header dropped right down Van der Sar’s throat as Arsenal registered their first attempt in target after half an hour.
Ronaldo again tried his luck with a long-range free-kick as half time approached, but Almunia was not to be duped a second time, and Emmanuel Adebayor – as desolate as he had been in the first encounter, despite the added support of Van Persie – headed well over under pressure as Bacary Sagna’s cross dropped at the back post.
Wenger’s side rounded off the half with a three-minute spell of intense pressure that yielded nothing – significant in that it merely highlighted the difficulty the Frenchman must have had in rallying his players at the interval.
The second half started in ominous fashion as Almunia was forced into a reaction stop low to his left as Ronaldo drove in off the right and fired the ball at goal, and United then threaded a series of passes that ended with Park flashing in a cross which remained untouched as it flew out of play.
The writing was on the wall for Arsenal: in gambling on pulling one back they were exposed at the back, yet they had no other choice but to attack in numbers. From one such situation they went three down.
An Arsenal corner was headed clear by Nemanja Vidic, and Ronaldo flicked the ball inside to Park who spread play upfield to Rooney. Within a matter of seconds Ronaldo was steaming into Arsenal’s penalty area to apply the killer touch to Rooney’s squared ball and put the game – and tie – beyond The Gunners with half an hour still to play.
Fletcher’s evening came to a premature end when Rosetti rashly rushed to point to the penalty spot and drew a red card from his pocket after a challenge on Fabregas. The United midfielder won the ball with a challenge on Arsenal’s captain, but from behind the Italian official deemed a spot-kick to be the order of the day and Van Persie duly slammed the ball into the top-right corner.