Test of nerve for Gunners and Saints

LONDON: Holders Arsenal will need to put their European and English Premier League woes firmly behind them tomorrow when they take on First Division Sheffield United in the FA Cup semi-finals. 

The two sides meet at Old Trafford with the winners heading to Cardiff on May 17 to face either Southampton or First Division Watford, who meet at Villa Park in the other semi. 

Arsenal are now bidding for a historic second consecutive league and Cup double after their treble hopes evaporated with a Champions League exit at the second group phase. 

Though they will be clear favourites tomorrow, Arsenal have had a mixed run of form recently that will have Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock and his men fancying their chances of an upset. 

Becoming European champions for the first time appeared to be Arsenal’s main priority this season, but a 2-1 defeat by Valencia in their final group game shattered those hopes. 

Last month’s league lead over Manchester United has meanwhile been slashed from five points to just goal difference after a defeat by Blackburn Rovers and last Saturday’s draw at Aston Villa. 

However, Arsenal turned on the style in a 3-1 Cup quarter-final replay win at Stamford Bridge over Chelsea, the team they beat in last season’s final, and it is the latter form which Arsene Wenger will be expecting at Old Trafford. 

The Frenchman, hoping for a third consecutive trip to the Millennium Stadium after their late defeat by Liverpool in 2001, will not be underestimating his opponents. 

“To me, they look like a team with a style of play very close to the Premier League,” Wenger said after the draw. “They have good technical players and a good offensive attitude.” 

Sheffield United, who also reached the League Cup semi-finals this season before bowing out to Liverpool, are third in the First Division table and favourites for promotion via the playoffs. 

The two clubs, who first met in the Cup 100 years ago and contested the 1936 final won by Arsenal, caught the imagination of all football fans in 1999 when they arranged an unprecedented re-match after Arsenal secured victory with an unsporting goal. 

Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu, making his Arsenal debut, unwittingly intercepted Ray Parlour’s throw-in towards the Sheffield United goalkeeper after their opponents had put the ball out of play to enable a player to receive treatment. 

Kanu passed to Marc Overmars, who promptly scored, sparking furious protests. Arsenal won the re-match 2-1. 

Like Arsenal, Southampton will be wary of their First Division opponents in tomorrow’s later kick-off. 

While Sheffield United have already collected one Premier League scalp, after beating Leeds in the Yorkshire derby, Watford have two after knocking out relegation-bound West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland. 

The now cash-strapped club can also look back fondly on a golden era when they reached the 1984 final, losing 2-0 to Everton. 

But Southampton have had a sparkling season thanks to the skilful management of Gordon Strachan and the striking ability of James Beattie, the league's top scorer with 21 goals. 

Currently mid-table, having earlier challenged for a UEFA Cup place, Southampton are capable of repeating their last FA Cup encounter with the Hornets, 40 years ago, which ended with a 3-1 victory. 

Adding to the incentive for the Saints, should Arsenal beat Sheffield United, is the prospect of a UEFA Cup place – win or lose in the final. 

They will probably have to do without injured skipper Jason Dodd, though goalkeeper Antti Niemi ought to shrug off a knee sprain after missing training earlier this week. 

Niemi’s opposite number at Arsenal, David Seaman, will record the 1,000th game of his career if he makes his return from a hamstring injury. 

Southampton are hoping to match the biggest triumph in the club’s 118-year history, their 1976 Cup final win over Manchester United as a Second Division side, and Watford are unlikely to cope with the onslaught. 

Sheffield United and Watford have both caused upsets this season. But there has never been all-lower division final in the history of the Cup and even one of those two sides would be fortunate indeed to make it to Cardiff next month. – Reuters 

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