Arsenal in disguise

“HAS fate – or have, heaven forbid, the authorities themselves – got it in for us? Why do we always seem to draw top-tier talent?”

The editorial team behind Manchester United’s programme felt like indulging in a little club-approved paranoia about the FA Cup draw ahead of today’s fourth-round tie against Tottenham.

It’s all very well pointing out that 31 of United’s 39 FA Cup ties since 1998 have been against Premier League opposition. But perhaps the FA are doing you a favour, chaps. Surely you haven’t forgotten the pig’s ear you made of getting past Exeter in 2005? Or the even bigger pig’s ear you made of Championship side Coventry in the Carling Cup this season.

Be grateful that you are drawn against top-flight teams, United; it seems to focus you in a way that playing the minnows doesn’t. And besides, getting drawn against a team from a lower division is no guarantee of progress. Just ask Manchester City.

And anyway, you did get a good draw, United. If you could choose to be drawn against any other Premier League side, it would be Tottenham, because you always beat them. Spurs haven’t won at Old Trafford since Gary Lineker hit a curler into the far corner of Jim Leighton’s net at the Scoreboard End in the closing weeks of 1989; they haven’t beaten United anywhere since May 2001.

When Sir Alex Ferguson lavishes praise on you, there’s a fair chance it’s because he doesn’t see you as a threat. Take this extract, from his programme notes today:

“Spurs are a club I think we all respect, not least for their tradition of playing an attractive, open style.”

Can’t imagine Fergie saying that about Arsenal, can you? United have been paired with the Gunners four times in the FA Cup since 1998 (including two semi-finals and the 2005 final), and I don’t recall the build-up to those games being quite so friendly.

United fans would probably run their Spurs counterparts close in their dislike of the Gunners: that much became clear duringĀ today’s match, which the visitors were very unlucky to lose.

Having spent part of the week in Saudi Arabia on a mid-season break-cum-testimonial outing, United played for a large chunk of the first half as if they had left their boots in the Middle East. Their fans kept themselves amused with a chorus of “Cheer up Alan Shearer” (to the tune of The Monkees’ Daydream Believer), a dig at the former Newcastle striker, sitting in a box in the corner of the South Stand in his role as a Match Of The Day analyst.

But those chants were cut off in midflow as Robbie Keane turned in Aaron Lennon’s cutback to give Spurs a deserved lead.

“Are you Arsenal in disguise?” chanted the away fans, gleefully.

United roused themselves to level by half-time – Carlos Tevez firing in emphatically from a Ryan Giggs lay-off – but it hardly settled them down.

Patrice Evra and Wes Brown continued to make mistakes at the back in the second half; with the Frenchman lucky to get away with one comical slip which allowed Lennon to run free and chip over.

But the game turned on one incident in the 68th minute; Wayne Rooney sent clear, Michael Dawson handled the ball in trying to stop him scoring. Penalty for United. Red card for Dawson. Cristiano Ronaldo stuttered and stalled in a manner that would have made John Aldridge proud, before sending Radek Cerny the wrong way. Even Ronaldo’s penalties have a degree of showmanship about them.

Even then, Brown nearly gifted Tottenham an equaliser, turning Steed Malbranque’s cross against his own post in the last few minutes. When Ronaldo squirmed a third under Cerny’s body in the final two minutes, it made a travesty of the scoreline.

“One-nil, and you f***** it up,” sang the United fans, borrowing their tune from the Village People. A harsh assessment, but a fair one. Harsher still came the follow-up from the Stretford End: “Are you Arsenal in disguise?” Not intended as a compliment.

The luck of the FA Cup isn’t all in the draw, something United’s programme editors may want to reflect on tonight. Sometimes, your luck comes on the pitch. But I still reckon United would rather draw Sheffield United than Arsenal in round five.

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