Arsene Wenger made five changes from the team which won away to QPR on Wednesday night. He brought Wojciech Szczesny, Nacho Monreal, Per Mertesacker, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck in for David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel Paulista, Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud as he looked to freshen up the team and rotate for the cup as usual too. Crucially he kept Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Akexis Sanchez in the team and those five players are now the mainstay and backbone of the team.
Quite a few people were surprised by the inclusion of Welbeck for the in form Giroud in the central striking role, but I thought his pace could be a telling factor on the night. He had the added incentive of playing against the club who decided they no longer required his services last summer and he ended up playing a huge part in the outcome of the game. He might not offer the same physical presence as Giroud, but his pace can worry any defence and that's something Giroud is unfortunately short of.
When I surveyrd the starting line ups I could only see one United player who I thought would make Arsenal a better team and that was David de Gea. He's having another very good season and for me he was United's best player on the night. He made two magnificent saves in the second half to keep the score at 2-1 to Arsenal and keep United's slim hopes alive. United might have dominated possession on the night as you would expect on their own ground, but Arsenal carried the real threat and were far more composed in possession.
The teams traded blows early on but neither team came particularly close to scoring until a great run from Chamberlain in the 26th minute saw him set up Monreal and the left back finished like a seasoned striker with only de Gea to beat. It was just what Arsenal needed, but in true fashion they failed to hold on to that lead with Wayne Rooney equalising with a header only four minutes later. I was a little worried about how the players would react to being pegged back, but I shouldn't have been as they continued to play in the way which saw them take the lead.
United made two changes at half time to try to get a foothold in the game, but it was Arsenal who started the stronger of the two teams. The final pass just wasn't coming off though and I worried that they wouldn't punish United while they were on top. My worries were in vain though as Antonio Valencia made a mess of a back pass on the hour mark to let Welbeck in and he went around de Gea to roll the ball into an empty net.
I expected to see United throw everything bar the kitchen sink at Arsenal, but instead we were treated to a succession of United players diving to try to win free kicks and penalties. The referee showed great strength to show yellow cards to both Angel di Maria and Adnan Januzaj for simulation and di Maria them doubled his punishment by grabbing the referee's shirt and got himself sent off. It brought back memories of the day Arsenal's Invincibles were finally beaten at Old Trafford in 2004 when a combination of a weak referee and a diving Rooney ended their record.
There were so many talking points in the game such as United's continued long balls to Marouane Fellaini and the referee's unwillingness to show him a yellow card until the seventh foul he committed. That foul was worthy of a yellow card on it's own without even considering the six fouls given against him before it. He was also responsible for catching Francis Coquelin in the face early on and drawing blood from the nose Coquelin broke just over a week ago.
What was also obvious to me was this United team are pretty average no matter how much money they have spent on players in the last year or so. They have some very tough league games coming up and could find themselves well off the pace for a top four finish after their next five games. I don't think they're good enough to finish in the top four and their season could have effectively ended last night.
Arsenal rode their luck at times as well with Hector Bellerin walking a tightrope from his fourth minute yellow card for a foul on Ashley Young. There was a moment in the second half where he appeared to take Young down again and the referee could easily have given him a second yellow, but he only gave a free kick. Bellerin was replaced by Calum Chambers soon afterwards and rightly so with the United crowd baying for blood to balance up the red card dished out to di Maria.
As United pushed for an equaliser Arsenal had their chances on the break and I couldn't believe they didn't put at least one of them away, but that man de Gea worked miracles to deny Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez. United never came really close and Szczesny wasn't called upon to pull off any spectacular saves which was probably a good thing as he didn't have the best game. It looked like he was nervous and his handling wasn't great while his kicking was decidedly poor at times. Maybe losing his place to Ospina has damaged his confidence and he needs to work hard at getting his game back together.
Arsenal had drawn one and lost nine of their previous 10 trips to United and last night's win finally put an end to that awful run. It was all the sweeter that it ended their chances of winning a trophy this season and that a United reject scored the winning goal. Welbeck didn't bother with the nicities of respecting his former club and celebrated the goal like any other Arsenal player would have celebrated.
The only down side on the night was the injury to Chamberlain early in the second half as he pulled up with what looked like hamstring trouble. He had a very good game up to that point and it was his run at the heart of the United defence which made the first goal for Arsenal. Hopefully he won't be out for too long as he looks like he has so much to offer the team.
Coquelin was again immense in midfield and didn't put a foot wrong all night despite what Fellaini did to his already broken nose early on. He got by far the better of the midfield duels and showed himself perfectly capable of playing when he won the ball too. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to snuff out danger whenever it reared it's ugly head.
The draw for the semi finals pitted Arsenal with either Reading or Bradford at Wembley in just under six weeks time. Whichever one it is Arsenal will be strong favourites to win and reach another FA Cup final and I'd like to see them play Bradford if given a choice. They owe Bradford a semi final beating after going out to them on penalties in the last eight of the league cup a few years ago.
I won't particularly mind which one of them gets through though as I think Arsenal will beat the winners and book a cup final place in May against one of Villa, Liverpool or Blackburn. Before that there's an awful lot of football to be played and last night's win can only help to build the confidence of the players. I think third place is theirs for the taking, but I still think their chances against Monaco are somewhere between slim and none after the 3-1 home defeat in the first leg.
There's the small matter of a league game against a difficult to beat West Ham team on Saturday afternoon to contend with first. With United playing Spurs on Sunday and Liverpool going to Swansea on Monday night it's a chance for Arsenal to strengthen their grip on third and put some pressure on the teams chasing them. If they get three points in that game they can go to Monaco on the back of some very good results and who knows what might happen.
That's it for today.
See you tomorrow.