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Apr 2, 2004

United's last chance

LONDON, April 2 (Reuters) - Five years after Ryan Giggs propelled Manchester United towards their unprecedented Treble, history could be about to repeat itself in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Villa Park.

Only this time, the boot is very much on the other foot.

In 1999 Giggs's famous slalom through the Arsenal defence and crashing finish, later voted the greatest goal in FA Cup history, earned United a 2-1 extra-time victory in an epic semi-final replay at Villa Park.

The finest team Alex Ferguson has assembled in his 18-year reign went on to lift the league title, the FA Cup and the Champions League trophy in glorious fashion. Arsenal finished the season empty-handed and envious.

Half a decade later Arsenal are the team closing in on exactly the same Treble and the green eyes are United's as they contemplate a second barren season in three years.

Saturday's noon showdown offers them their one remaining chance to thwart Arsene Wenger's magnificent eleven. A battle of bare-knuckle intensity between English soccer's two fiercest rivals is guaranteed.

Premier league leaders Arsenal, unbeaten in a record 30 league games since the season's start, are trying to become the first club since 1886 to win soccer's oldest knockout competition three years in a row.

Apart from their wins over Chelsea and Southampton in the last two finals, Arsenal also lost the 2001 final to Liverpool, so they will also become the first team to reach four successive finals if they triumph on Saturday.

The game comes in the middle of an exhausting schedule for Wenger's team.

HENRY DILEMMA

Having drawn 1-1 at Chelsea, whom they also eliminated in the FA Cup fifth round, in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final the Wednesday before last, Arsenal were held 1-1 by United in the premier league on Sunday.

That result meant their league lead was cut to seven points by Chelsea, whom they face at Highbury in their Champions League return on Tuesday, followed by a home league clash with Liverpool on Friday and a trip to Newcastle on Sunday.

Wenger knows Arsenal must pace themselves but it seems unthinkable that on Saturday he will rest ace striker Thierry Henry, who seems certain to play after exerting himself for only 45 minutes for France on Wednesday.

'Thierry will be available but nothing is decided yet,' Wenger told Arsenal's website. 'It is a very difficult situation to manage because we have four games in a week.

'I have to consider the whole task we face in the eight days and try to be successful everywhere. That is my target. I hope I will find a solution and I am confident I will.' Louis Saha is ineligible for United on Saturday, leaving Ruud van Nistelrooy to carry their main attacking threat.

United captain Roy Keane's now familiar midfield duel with his counterpart Patrick Vieira will be pivotal and Arsenal's Frenchman will not be surprised to hear Keane is feeling feisty.

'It has not all been rosy this season and we have had one or two problems,' the Irishman told MUTV. 'We deserve to get there but Arsenal probably think that too. Unfortunately, someone's going to be disappointed at the weekend.'

United have a frightening FA Cup semi-final record, having not lost any of the last 10 they have contested. Four of those wins came at Villa Park, with Arsenal their victims there twice, in 1983 and 1999.

Unlike in 1999, though, there will be no replay if Saturday's match finishes all-square. Extra time will be succeeded by the purgatory of a penalty shootout to decide who faces either Sunderland or Millwall in Cardiff on May 22.

Probable teams:

Arsenal: 1-Jens Lehmann; 12-Lauren, 28-Kolo Toure, 23-Sol Campbell, 22-Gael Clichy; 8-Fredrik Ljungberg, 17-Edu, 4-Patrick Vieira, 7-Robert Pires; 14-Thierry Henry, 10-Dennis Bergkamp.

Manchester United: 13-Roy Carroll; 2-Gary Neville, 6-Wes Brown, 27-Mikael Silvestre, 22-John O'Shea; 20-Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, 19-Eric Djemba-Djemba, 18-Paul Scholes, 16-Roy Keane, 11-Ryan Giggs; 10-Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Referee: Graham Barber