Sunday, January 25, 2015

FA Cup Recap: Arsenal Win, Liverpool and United Draw, Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham all Lose

In one of the most rousing fourth round FA Cup weekends in recent memory, Chelsea blew a 2-0 lead at home and lost to League One Bradford, Man City were scalped 2-0 by Middlesbrough at the Etihad and Tottenham too lost at home, to Leicester City 2-1. These results were coupled with goalless draws for Manchester United at Cambridge and Liverpool at home against previous Premier League regulars Bolton. To cap things off, Southampton was dumped out by a surging Crystal Palace, continuing to play inspired football in the wake of Alan Pardew’s return (winning 3-2 on the road), and Swansea City lost 3-1 to the Championship’s mid table dwelling Blackburn. Overall, only two of the top ten in the EPL have secured passage to the next round, with Stoke playing tomorrow and Liverpool and United set for replays.

After two days of major upsets, results went more or less to form on Sunday, with West Ham able to hold off Bristol City with a late goal from sub Diafra Sakho (81st minute), Aston Villa taking down AFC Bournemouth 2-1 and Arsenal pulling off a tight victory 3-2 at Brighton. Arsenal started brightly with Theo Walcott scoring his first goal in over a year on two minutes after meeting a nice cross from Calum Chambers, settling it and then finishing strongly across goal. Then, after a period of complete domination, they made it two in the 24th minute, when the just returning Ozil scored on a great pass from Rosicky, finishing coolly across goal with his preferred left foot.

But in the 50th minute, some typically shambolic defending from the Gunners that started with a poor Rosicky followed by Chambers not challenging for the ball in the air and Koscielny failing to block the shot. It was suddenly 2-1 and five minutes later a real scare emerged, as an Albion player dove in the box in a way that could easily have led to a penalty, though referee Mike Oliver made the right call. In the 59th minute, Arsenal restored order as Rosicky and Giroud engaged in a lovely one-two after a Rosicky steal that included a Giroud chip and a lovely Rosicky volley/shot from the edge of the box, to make it 3-1. Walcott forced a good save in the 67th minute on a fierce and well-placed shot from outside the box for what turned out to be his last contribution. In the 69th, Sanchez came on for him and Akpom for Giroud. And then more poor defending from Arsenal made it 3-2 with Boldon making a good run and then lifting it over a charging Szczesny in the 75th minute.

So with 15 minutes left, a game Arsenal largely dominated was still in the balance, largely because of a return to their wobbly defending of old. Ozil came out for Coquelin in the 80th minute, clearly with the idea of stealing the defense as Brighton’s belief rose. Arsenal continued to clear without real resolve and lose the ball in the middle, before a strong counter by Sanchez got the ball out to Akpom, though the weight of the pass pulled him wide and his resultant shot was well saved. In the 83rd, Sanchez earned a free kick on the edge of the box, allowing a break in a game that was starting to get more and more open. Sanchez’s kick was nicked by the wall and hit the post, inches from sealing things. Arsenal were holding on for dear life when a handball in the box by Chambers was fortuitously too close to be called a penalty before the resultant corner was less than convincingly cleared by Szczesny, who has failed to keep a clean sheet since November. Akpom was clattered just outside the box in the first of four minutes of extra time and Sanchez almost scored again, with a decent save that looked more heroic in real time than in replay. A third free kick on the edge of the box was sent just high by the Chilean and Arsenal settled down for the last few minutes, though Ramsey could have made it four when Rosicky served up a great cross at the far corner that he failed to convert. But the game ended 3-2 and Arsenal were through to the fifth round.

Looking at the individual performances of the Gunners, Ozil was bright throughout and scored, Ramsey was active and looked more comfortable with Ozil beside him for most of the match, Walcott showed a glimmer of his old self with the great early finish and Rosicky was a constant threat sealing the victory with a lovely bit of technique. The defense, on the other hand, was up and down with Chambers looking vulnerable (and being partially guilty on the first Brighton goal) and Szczesny continuing the shaky play that has seen him supplanted as first choice by Ospina. In fact, the rumours that the Polish goalkeeper might be on his way out at season’s end seem more likely than ever after this display. Overall, it was nice to see the beautiful football Arsenal are best known for return after the gritty Man City win last weekend, though the absence of Coquelin until the final 10 minutes exposed those old defensive holes. The addition of Paulista for the back line and the emergence of Coquelin in DM (with new signing Bielik available as backup) seem to indicate a second half run could be in the offing for a team that blew their title bid last year in a torrid run from February through March.

Liverpool and United will have chances to win their replays, obviously, but Arsenal already find themselves with a strong chance to win the FA Cup for the second year running, as City, Chelsea, Southampton and Tottenham are all already gone. There’s a long way to go, but two years of silverware in a row would be like winning a small lottery, after the ten years of futility us Gooners lived through.

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