LONDON: Arsenal kept their three-way trophy hunt on course yesterday with a convincing 2-0 victory against Manchester United in the fifth round of the FA Cup competition at Old Trafford.
The often bad-tempered game between the Premiership's top two teams hinged on an astonishing incident after half an hour, when United's Ryan Giggs somehow missed a completely open goal.
With the Red Devils shellshocked, Arsenal took the lead minutes later through Brazilian midfielder Edu's wickedly-deflected free-kick.
The victory, sealed by French striker Sylvain Wiltord's clever second-half shot, gives Arsenal a clear psychological advantage in the Premiership race and keeps them on track for a theoretical treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League.
It also gives the Gunners sweet revenge for United's famous 1999 FA Cup semi-final win – which propelled the Red Devils towards their own treble – a game sealed by Giggs's wonder-goal.
This time the Welsh winger was more zero than hero, cleverly evading David Seaman and Sol Campbell before managing to scoop the ball over the bar when a simple tap-in would have sufficed.
In the day's other three fifth round ties, the misery continued for Premiership bottom side Sunderland, who lost 1-0 at home to First Division Watford through a controversial second half penalty.
Tommy Smith's initial effort was saved by Thomas Sorensen but the referee ordered a re-take and Smith shot home the second time.
Howard Wilkinson's men attacked desperately, but to no avail.
At St Mary's, despite winning 2-0 Southampton were lucky to see off First Division Norwich, who had the better of much of the tie.
With the game scoreless and just 20 minutes to go, Norwich's Paul McVeigh hit the inside of the post with a wonderful curling shot – only to see Southampton counter attack immediately and score through Anders Svensson.
Jo Tessem then sealed the tie three minutes later.
Sheffield United had the easiest time of it in their all-First Division game against Wallsall, winning comfortably 2-0 at home with goals from Tommy Mooney and Peter Ndlovu.
But holders Arsenal are the clear favourites to retain the FA Cup after a convincing win hailed by manager Arsene Wenger.
“I think overall we controlled the game, and the result is a consequence of our brilliant performance,” said the Frenchman.
Arsenal defender Sol Campbell was overjoyed. “It is not easy coming here and winning, but it is a good day, a great day,” he beamed.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson tried hard to look on the bright side.
“The only good thing about bad results like today's is that it eases the programme a good bit for us,” he said ruefully.
“At 2-0 down it was always going to be difficult,” he added.
However, he criticised Arsenal's players for hounding referee Jeff Winter during a bad-tempered opening 10 minutes, which saw a pair of near-mass brawls and three bookings inside the first 10 minutes.
“I didn't think the Arsenal players handled the referee well. They were surrounding him in numbers and it just creates havoc,” said Ferguson, whose own players have been accused of similar tactics in the past.
When passions subsided, both sides played uncertainly before Giggs's astonishing miss, surely the worst of his illustrious career.
United's afternoon soon got worse, when Edu's free kick struck David Beckham's shoulder to spin wickedly past the stranded Fabien Barthez.
Arsenal began to take a grip of the tie and went 2-0 up just seven minutes after half-time.
The impressive Edu rolled the ball to Wiltord, who skipped over Wes Brown's challenge and fired past Barthez.
Soon afterwards Giggs added to his misery, managed to hopelessly miscue a volley from close range, and was substituted soon afterwards. – AFP