| Manchester Unitedís Wayne Rooney (left) is pursued by Patrick Vieira of Arsenal during their FA Cup final in Cardiff on Saturday. (AFP)
It was so nearly the Wayne Rooney Cup Final, the boy branded a poor role model for his swearing and yobbish behaviour for once concentrating on what he does best, doing sublime things with a football. But although he tormented Arsenal to the point of psychosis and surrender, they somehow survived 120 minutes to force the final into a penalty shootout for the first time in its 133-year history.
It was a miserable way to end the Cupís five-year tenure at the Millennium Stadium and incredibly, between the countryís two most attack-minded teams, produced a goalless draw in the final for the first time since 1912 and brought one of the most turbulent periods in Manchester Unitedís history to a miserable end, one etched in black.
The two hours of football ended in shame when Arsenalís Jose Antonio Reyes was sent off in the final seconds for a second bookable offence. Although he is one of their more reliable penalties-takers, they scored all five to win the shootout 5-4, Jens Lehmann, deciding it with a brilliant save from Paul Scholes. At least it was not marred by United fans demonstrating against the sale of their club to Malcolm Glazer, the odd black balloon the only visible sign of protest.
If we could also welcome the sight of these warring teams for once keeping their hands and, as far as we know, their food trays to themselves, it was a deeply unsatisfactory final that highlighted the reasons why the two clubs which have dominated English football over the past 10 years have suddenly been eclipsed by Chelsea.
Unitedís '70 million strike-force, in which Rooney was at times breathtaking, once again failed to score in a game they dominated. And Arsenal, without Thierry Henry, were completely impotent, forcing Roy Carroll into just one save, and that a free-kick from substitute Robin Van Persie in the 98th minute.
For all the bad blood between these teams, there is still also an enormous respect, certainly far more than Prime Minister Tony Blair can ever hope to instil in Englandís feral youths. It showed in an opening passage of play in which both teams enjoyed spells of lengthy, careful possession. As the football started to develop a more cutting edge, so did the tackles.
Darren Fletcher took out Patrick Vieira on the blind side, Reyes slid into Fletcher and Scholes made one of his wild lunges at Dennis Bergkamp. Referee Rob Styles rightly allowed those to go unpunished before correctly booking Ashley Cole for cynically taking out Rooney. It seemed to have a galvanising effect on Rooney, who produced five scintillating minutes of football around the half-hour mark which might easily have settled the game.
First, he delivered a thunderbolt that Lehmann stopped with his right foot, Rio Ferdinand standing off-side when he rolled in the rebound. Then Rooney muscled through for a shot that Lehmann pushed over the bar and, most outrageously of all, met the resulting Scholes corner with a volley from 20 yards that whistled over the bar and might have done some serious danger to any Arsenal fan behind the goal.
Arsenal struggled to make an impact at the other end, with their five midfield players causing an M4-style traffic jam in the centre and Dennis Bergkamp, alone up front, struggling to bring the arriving cavalry into play. Arsenal were desperately missing Henry, not just for his goals but for the manner in which he links up the play and eats up the ground, quickly turning defence into attack.
Without that threat, United were able to continue pushing forward, with Rooney continuing to set the agenda, Phillipe Senderos blocking a shot off his knee and Kolo Toure throwing himself to the ground to steal the ball from his boot. An agitated Arsene Wenger prowled the touchline wondering how much longer he dared to maintain a formation that was not working.
Never quick to make changes, he pulled Bergkamp off with fully 25 minutes to go, sending on Freddie Ljungberg in search of width and pace. It coincided with Arsenalís first shot, a right-footed effort from Robert Pires that comfortably cleared the bar. For a side which nearly always score, it was a curiously tepid, even dull performance.
Ljungberg at least got busy, immediately freshening up the attacking lines, but not before Rooney squeezed a shot past Lehmann that came back off a post. Cristiano Ronaldo also gave Lauren one of his most uncomfortable afternoons of the season. Ljungberg offered Arsenal hope, playing a one-two with Reyes and almost forcing Carroll into his first save.
But Reyes stupidly got himself booked for a challenge from behind on Mikael Silvestre. Senderos almost gave away all Arsenalís hard work when he carelessly stroked a would-be clearance to Scholes, who lifted straight back into Rooneyís path. Fortunately for Senderos, a flurry of red shirts, led by Gilberto, wrestled him to the ground.
Lehmann brought all the uncertainty flooding back through his defence when he dropped two successive crosses in the final five minutes, allowing Roy Keane to hit a shot that Vieira blocked and Rudd van Nistelrooy to head against the bar.
United brought on Ryan Giggs for extra-time, a player hoping, like Keane, to become the first player in more than a century to win five Cups. But even he could not break the deadlock.