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Fergie shell-shocked by awesome Gunners

ARSENAL 3 MAN UNITED 0 AT last showing the class of champions, Arsenal swept aside Manchester United with almost imperious ease at an exultant Highbury yesterday.As the sun sank across London, United were reduced to chasing shadows, embarrassingly trying to catch opponents who gleefully ran and passed and nutmegged their way through. Rarely have United been so outclassed, so outfought. ``It will not be repeated,'' a wounded Alex Ferguson promised after surveying the wreckage.

After five draws in succession, Arsenal sprang thrillingly into life, the goals flowing from Tony Adams, Nicolas Anelka and the debut-making Fredrik Ljungberg.

The record books will note their contributions but not the massive performances of other red-liveried dynamos, men like Stephen Hughes, an able deputy for Emmanuel Petit who happily took on the mighty Roy Keane. Like Patrick Vieira, a sublime study in timing and motion.

Like Martin Keown, both tough and tidy in defence. Like Marc Overmars, whose guiding of the ball through Ryan Giggs's legs underlined Arsenal's confidence.

With towering performances from back to front, Highbury was treated to a triumph of the collective. ``We had our offensive power back,'' a smiling Arsene Wenger said.

FERGUSON was brutally frank in defeat. ``We were second best in every challenge. Arsenal were far more determined. We were tip-toeing through the game.''

Ferguson refused to accept that last Wednesday's exhausting 3-3 draw with Barcelona explained Sunday's inertia. ``That was probably the best game in Europe for years,'' he said. ``My players got to unbelievable levels. They could have been drained by that but I'm not going to offer that as an excuse.''

United's Manager also side-stepped the opportunity to find reasons for this embarrassing reverse in referee Graham Barber's 52nd-minute expulsion of Nicky Butt for a foul on Vieira, who was heading down the inside-right channel but with opponents preparing to cover.

``I've seen the sending-off again and according to the referee Butt was sent off because of a tackle from behind and there was no one coming in,'' Ferguson said.

``The referee was wrong on both accounts. You can talk about professional referees but what difference does it make with a decision like that? You can either make a decision or you can't.'' Wenger sympathised. ``I wouldn't have contested a yellow card for Butt.''

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DISMISSED for the second successive game, Butt was undoubtedly unfortunate but his troubled team were already two goals in arrears by then. For their opening goal, after 14 minutes, Arsenal strolled down memory lane. When Lee Dixon was fouled by Jesper Blomqvist wide on the right, Hughes clipped a left-footed free-kick in towards the penalty spot.

Keane appeared initially to be marking Adams, who ran for the near post, checked inside and rose effortlessly above Jaap Stam to head past Peter Schmeichel, who had reacted as poorely as his defenders.

A marvellous challenge by Keown on the rampaging Giggs brought about the second after 44 minutes.

Vieira, still recovering from a run moments earlier, allowed Overmars to maintain the forward momentum.

The little Dutchman guided the ball over United's square defence, over the statuesque Stam, who had a wretched match, for Anelka to do what he does best, sprint on to a ball and score at the second attempt.

United were stunned, unable to take in this gathering ignominy. They had enjoyed chances, notably through the excellent David Beckham, who was mindlessly booed by the home fans. Beckham almost found the perfect riposte, crashing in a shot which beat David Seaman but not the post.

THE start of the second half was marred by a simmering row between Beckham, Keane and Hughes, the young Arsenal midfielder being booked for catching Beckham.

United immediately took this foul as a complete affront to their dignity and set off to level the scores with Hughes. Sure enough, as Hughes tried to turn near the touchline Keane came steaming in, followed by Beckham. Hughes, rubbing his side, was eventually helped to his feet and gingerly rejoined the fray.

United's desire to stick up for each other is admirable, and part of the reason for their phenomenal success, but such descents into indiscipline patently undermine their cause.

The visitors' frustration lay only partly in their realisation of Arsenal's superiority. Ferguson's tactics stymied his team's chances of success.

BREAKING up the successful Dwight Yorke-Ole Gunnar Solskjaer axis, Ferguson played Giggs through the middle with the aim of `moving' Arsenal's centre-halves around. Adams and Keown are too sharp for that. Out wide, Blomqvist laboured all afternoon, showing signs of life only late on.

The Daily Telegraph

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