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Man United reaches Champions League final again

MANCHESTER United reached the Champions League final for a second straight year yesterday after Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice to lead his team to a 3-1 win at Arsenal.

Park Ji-sung put the defending champions ahead following a slip by defender Kieran Gibbs before Ronaldo hit a swerving free kick from 35 meters (yards) to make it 2-0 after only 11 minutes.

Ronaldo then rounded off a 61st-minute counterattack that he started in his own half and, although Robin van Persie got a late goal back for Arsenal, United completed a 4-1 aggregate win in the two-legged semifinal.

The comprehensive victory means United could now become the first team since AC Milan in 1989 and 1990 to earn the title of European champion for two straight years, although it will face Chelsea or Barcelona in the May 27 final in Rome.

"I've said it many times, we should have won this cup more times than we have," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "We've got the hunger and the quality."

Chelsea, which lost last year's final on a penalty shootout, hosts the Spanish league leader in the second semifinal Wednesday. The teams are tied 0-0 from the first leg.

The only bad news for United was that midfielder Darren Fletcher, who was an unused substitute last year, will be suspended for the final after he was sent off for conceding the late penalty that led to Arsenal's only goal.

Fletcher brought down Cesc Fabregas in the area and Robin van Persie converted the resulting kick in the 76th.

"I think the red card was very harsh," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.

Until the penalty, Arsenal had labored without success against a defense that earlier this season went a Premier League-record 14 games without conceding a goal.

Arsenal needed to overturn a 1-0 deficit from last week's first leg at Old Trafford but United's early burst of two goals in three minutes soon left the Gunners needing to score four goals to progress - something it never looked capable of doing.

"We do not have the feeling that we played a semifinal in the Champions League because it was over after 10 minutes," Wenger said. "The most disappointing thing is that the game was over before it even started."

Gibbs should have cut out Ronaldo's cross into the area but slipped on the grass to give Park the chance to run around him and lift the ball over goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

Van Persie immediately put an arm around the 19-year-old Gibbs, who looked distraught over the mistake and was substituted at halftime.

Arsenal had not conceded a Champions League goal at Emirates Stadium since last year's quarterfinal exit to Liverpool, but Ronaldo then hit another with a fierce free kick that beat Almunia at his near post.

"The shot was quite difficult to save because the ball moved a little bit," Ronaldo said. "I just try to do my best to put the ball in the net and it was a good goal."

The success prompted Ronaldo to send almost every free kick United was awarded toward goal, regardless of the distance or angle. With defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic troubling Arsenal's shaky defense at corners with their aerial ability, the Portugal winger's persistence may have cost United even more scoring opportunities.

But any concerns evaporated in the 61st when Ronaldo, who scored in the 1-1 draw with Chelsea that preceded last year's final shootout, started and finished the move that made it 3-0.

Ronaldo back heeled the ball to Park inside his own half and the South Korea midfielder released Wayne Rooney on the left. Rooney sprinted to the Arsenal box before crossing to Ronaldo, who arrived on the edge of the area with a first-time shot high into net.

The goal made United so comfortable that Ferguson was able to replace Rooney and Patrice Evra for the last 25 minutes, ensuring that neither picked up a yellow card that would have ruled them out of the final.

While United contemplates the prospect of a fourth European Cup title - and how to get at least seven points from four games to clinch the Premier League for a third straight year - Arsenal remains without a trophy since 2005, and still waiting for the bright future predicted by Wenger to arrive.

"I'm convinced that we have the quality and we continue to develop well," Wenger said. "If you look at the age of the team, we are still very young."


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