Monday, May 19, 2014

Arsenal End Drought – Come Back to Win FA Cup 3-2

Something funny happened on the road to what was supposed to be 90 or so minutes standing between Arsenal and their first trophy in nine years – the conceding of two goals in the first ten minutes. Arsenal were, in fact, lucky not to be down three a few minutes later, when Gibbs pushed away a goal bound header on the line (13’). Hull started the scoring in the 4th minute, with a clever redirect by CB James Chester, and a thundering rebound from in close by the other CB, Curtis Davies (8’), following a header off the bar, made it 2-0 before anyone had settled. Sitting at a pub surrounded predominantly by Gooners, drinking a pint at 9 in the morning, I wondered if Wenger had figured out a way to blow silverware yet again – first by failing to get his defenders up for a big game yet again and then by picking the departing Fabianski over Szczesny.

But the team would go on to bail out the Frenchman, starting with a stunning 30-yard freekick from Santi Cazorla in the 17th minute. Hull GK Allan McGregor jerked right for an instant before coming back across to get a finger on a ball just out of reach. That seemed to calm the Gunners and they largely dominated from here, though spurning several good chances and getting caught in the middle from a relentless Hull midfield. The equalizer didn’t come until the 71st minute, when a header from Sanogo (who came on for an ineffective Podolski in the 61st minute) of a Cazorla corner kick bounced off of Giroud’s head and into the path of Koscielny, who tucked the ball into goal right in front of McGregor. The second goal came after several penalty shouts went unheeded, including Huddlestone pulling Giroud down from behind in the box and a clear handball close in goal in the box, calling into question a rather terrible game for Lee Probert, who also contributed indirectly to Arsenal’s first two goals, first giving a loose foul that led to Cazorla’s FK and then possibly wrongly calling the corner that resulted in the equalizer (though even slow motion replay was unclear to me). But those two calls were balanced against at least four missed penalty claims and I don’t believe changed the game in the end.

Arsenal charged forward for the winner in the final 20 minutes, though Wenger was so excited by the second goal he apparently forgot that he still had two unused substitutes. They were eventually cashed in in the 2nd overtime period, as Wilshere and Rosicky came on for Ozil and Cazorla. Both brought a renewed energy to the attack that paid off three minutes later, as a clever back heel from Giroud in the box was coolly slotted into the near corner by Aaron Ramsey (109’). Now all the Gunners had to do was see out the last five minutes of the game, but they inexplicably seemed intent on scoring a fourth and were almost caught on a counter, when Fabianski came running out of the box and was rounded, only for the resultant shot to flash across the face of the goal and safely out.

And so the long wait was finally over, and I and my pub mates exploded in celebration, just as the fans did at Wembley, and across the red side of North London. A nine-year drought had finally come to an end and the relief on Wenger’s face, which was scrunched in stress before kickoff and throughout most of the game, finally relaxed with a broad smile, as his tie disappeared and he ran around hugging anyone in sight. It also probably provided the grand exit Sagna has dreamed of throughout his time at Arsenal, and a relief to Fabianski, who appears too prone to err for a top tier team. Ozil and Podolski celebrated along with the rest of the Gunners, allowing us to ignore their rather paltry contributions to the game, while Ramsey finished the season with the flair he showed from the start, seemingly on the cusp of entering the top tier of European midfielders.

So my final three things for the season will be quick and to the point …

1.  Ozil/Podolski: a disappointing display from 2/3rds of our starting German contingent might damper the celebration a little, though one hopes that Podolski’s finishing can be backed by more effort throughout games new year and that a new striker will allow Ozil’s clear skills to shine. There were only slight glimmers of the Ozil/Ramsey understanding used to such good effect earlier in the season, but that combination should only continue to flourish going forward.
2.  Arteta/Flamini: I assume Arteta was given the start because of his contributions over the past three years, even as his abilities appear to be in steady decline – and this mistake might well have contributed to the early deficit. One wonders if he will be back next year and, if so, in what role. We clearly need a DM that can police the space in front of our back four with more stature and strength and start the counter with precision. Lars Bender appears to be the best option and then maybe Flamini plays the backup and we let Arteta go.
3.  Wenger: Arsene cannot step onto the pitch and play the game, so one can’t really blame him for the early deficit, though I do feel Fabianski was less than adequate on both scores and that zonal marking showed its flaws in glaring fashion. I also think he needs to consider a more conservative approach to the beginning of big games, as he did in the first half of the season. In any case, Arteta claimed his stirring half-time speech helped catapult the Gunners to victory and his “bold” decision to switch to a 4-4-2 did arguably contribute to the equalizer (and should have elicited the winner but for the shared ineptitude of Giroud and Sanogo, who might ask for lessons on finishing from Koscielny). Now Wenger has his 12th piece of silverware and a team that can compete at the top, if he adds reinforcements this summer. Let’s hope he’s finally learned his lesson – as it appears his reign will be three years longer, if unsurprising rumours are to be believed.

And so Arsenal finish in fourth, win the FA Cup and finally emerge from the shadow of the move to the Emirates. They are more financially sound than the title winners, and most other top teams in the division, and have a young foundation to build around. What the team appears to need is two or three more world class players to move to the next level and challenge for the domestic and UCL titles. Whether Wenger will succeed in acquiring that talent is the question of the summer. 

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