Manchester United, Arsenal live up to the hype of their rivalry's storied history
Strangely grandiose and medieval-sounding trumpet music accompanied the players out of the tunnel and onto the field, as if to escort a king striding to his throne from amongst his court. The implicit message seemed to be that this tournament matters. That this game matters. That these teams still matter.
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For decades, an FA Cup sixth-round contest between Manchester United and Arsenal didn't need any kind of musical adornment, or a soundtrack to lend it gravitas. It was a rivalry, a classic that never disappointed, between two of England's historically most accomplished clubs. United-Arsenal, enough said.
Yet now it was apparently different. In the run-up to this game, its broadcasters and the rest of the media leaned heavily on history to underscore this game's significance, referring again and again to the midfield cage matches fought by Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira a decade ago at the height of this bloodthirsty enmity. The subtext was clear: They don't reside at the top of the mountain anymore, but they used to, so please pay attention.
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Neither of these teams won the Premier League last season. Neither of them will this year. The very fact that Arsenal now sits in third place and United in fourth is considered a stroke of good fortune and form in recent weeks, and written off as much as a failing of their rivals as it is an accomplishment of their own. This league now belongs to Manchester City and Chelsea. The Sky Blues and the Blues have even more money than the two clubs donning the red, courtesy of some very generous investment from owners with too much money to care. One of them will be champion. Like last year, and like the next few years, probably.
Yet for all this couching, all this revelry of the past and the way things were when sugar daddies hadn't mucked up the natural order yet, Arsenal's 2-1 victory at Old Trafford was another splendid game of soccer that needed no excuses made on its behalf. Even if United and Arsenal are no longer the best of the best, there was nothing to be apologetic for.
From the first kick, Monday's game was a tense and helter-skelter affair, hurtling from one end to the other. With only Liverpool and Aston Villa remaining as credible contenders, this is the tournament to win this year, if these teams are to win anything at all. Their managers are under pressure. Louis van Gaal hasn't been all that much more convincing than David Moyes in succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. Arsene Wenger is perpetually under the gun to secure silverware on the regular again. Their teams seemed to understand that and played accordingly.
Arsenal took the first lead. In the 25th minute, a phenomenal dribble from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain across the top of the United box, confounding its much-maligned back line, freed up the onrushing Nacho Monreal. The left back coolly beat David De Gea with his finish.
Not four minutes later, Angel Di Maria, United's record signing heaped with criticism lately, whipped in a razor-sharp cross, which Wayne Rooney redirected past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with a thumping header.
The second half started off tentatively, devolving into a battlesome fracas. But soon enough, Marouane Fellaini, playing as a kind of target man for United, played in Di Maria, who smacked his finish just wide. Before that same minute, the 61st, was out, Danny Welbeck, sold by United to Arsenal last summer, won the game at the other end, capitalizing on more shambolic United defending.
Antonio Valencia, the Ecuadorian right back sent a soft pass back to De Gea, which Welbeck intercepted. The forward tapped the ball around De Gea with a single touch, wheeled behind it and slid it into the open net.
Next, Arsenal's Hector Bellerin probably should have been sent off with a second yellow card for taking down Ashley Young, who was in a promising position. And then Chris Smalling skied a chance from just a few yards out.
At the other end, De Gea made a sparkling save on a Santi Cazorla volley to keep his team in the game. But soon thereafter, with a quarter of an hour to play Di Maria dove on a run across the box and was given a first yellow card for simulation and another for shoving the referee in his ensuing rage, reducing his team to 10 men. In the 87th minute, Adnan Januzaj took a tumble as well, in the box. He was booked, too.
They were 90 pulsating minutes.
Even the goal celebrations had been emphatic. Monreal running off incredulously. Rooney sliding on both his knees, somehow spinning towards the teammates behind him midway through his skid, pumping both fists as he came to a standstill and roaring out a guttural "Come on!" Welbeck tearing away, clearly torn between cheering the restoration of his own ego and weeping for the betrayal of his childhood club – which in turn had betrayed him over the summer.
Monday's edition of United-Arsenal was a classic befitting of its history. If the world surrounding these clubs has changed to their detriment, the sheen on their rivalry remains untarnished.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.