Forget Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, there were only three soccer players that mattered at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, and none of them were Portuguese, English or Argentine.
The first was John O’Shea, the Irish international defender who turns 28 today. It was his thunderous goal in the 17th minute that earned Manchester United a 1-0 victory in the first leg of its European Champions League semifinal against Arsenal.
“The goal was a little early birthday present for me,” said O’Shea, who had scored only once before this season.
The second was midfielder Ryan Giggs, the veteran Welsh international who came on as a second-half substitute to make his record-extending 800th appearance for United.
Giggs, 35, who last week was named the Professional Footballers’ Assn. Player of the Year, was unlucky not to celebrate his achievement with a goal after apparently scoring only to have the goal disallowed on a very marginal offside call.
So United, the defending champion, had to settle for a one-goal victory, but only because of the strong play of the third of Wednesday’s men that mattered: Arsenal’s Spanish goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.
The man from Pamplona pulled of a stunning series of saves, especially in the first half when Manchester United was threatening to run rampant. He ended the night with six saves as United outshot Arsenal, 14-4.
“Almunia kept us in the tie,” said Arsenal Coach Arsene Wenger, well aware that the Gunners can still reach the May 27 final in Rome against either Barcelona or Chelsea if they overcome Manchester at the Emirates Stadium in London next Tuesday.
“They played well and started very strong, but the good thing is we didn’t concede more than one,” Wenger said. “We have a good chance to reverse it at home. . . . United played at a fast pace and closed us down well and we never got into our stride.
“I believe we will see a different Arsenal next week.”
On Wednesday, the Gunners looked positively pedestrian against a Manchester United team that was urged on by a crowd of 74,733 but never quite found its finishing touch, despite extending its unbeaten streak in the Champions League to 24 games.
The closest United came to scoring a second -- apart from Giggs’ disallowed goal -- was when Ronaldo crashed a volley into the crossbar from long range.
“Maybe we should have scored four,” said Manchester United Coach Alex Ferguson, “but if you had asked me what I wanted, I wanted to win the game without losing a goal.
“You can’t have everything in life, we’ve got that, so we move on.”
Ferguson suggested he might make lineup changes in the second leg next week.
“Maybe I’ll pick a different team with different tactics,” he said, “but we’ll have a goal threat.
“We reached a high level against a very good team. We know the tie is not over, but we can score there.”
Jones reported from Los Angeles.