Saturday, April 18, 2015

FA Cup: Arsenal Through to Final After Tough Reading Challenge

Arsenal started slowly against a Reading team clearly not cowed by a trip to Wembley, even as the two teams were separated by 36 places in the table, with the Gunners second in the EPL and Reading languishing in 18th in the Championship. But that doesn’t matter in elimination games, particularly if you can score that all-important first goal. Arsenal almost found it in the 8th minute, when only a fine save by Reading GK Federici kept a strong Mertesacker header from an Ozil corner from nestling into goal. Three minutes later it was Reading with a decent chance, as a shot from the edge of the box was hit with real power, though right at Szczesny, surprisingly finding himself in goal ahead of Ospina for the FA Cup (though Wenger usually does stick with his cup GKs throughout). Arsenal came close again in the 18th minute, when a curling Ozil free kick went just wide of the near post.

Reading were creating a few half chances, but more importantly keeping the Arsenal attack at bay, pressing whomever had the ball and forcing some poor passes and lost possession by the Gunners. Then in the 39th minute, Arsenal finally broke through, with the help of their two big money men. Ozil, given too much space from about 30 yards out, sent in a lovely looping pass to Sanchez, who brought the ball down beautifully, beat his defender with a clever touch and then rifled it between Federici’s legs (for his 21st in all competitions). Sanchez showed his hunger throughout the first half, though it wasn’t amounting to much until the goal, and Ozil demonstrated the class that is returning him to the form we witnessed at Real and with Germany. A valiant effort from Reading had kept it close, but they still found themselves down 1-0 when the halftime whistle sounded.

Halftime allowed us fans to check the other marginally important game going on at the same time as the first semifinal, that team from London named after a girl playing one with a pretty decent history, led until recently by a pop star singer who oddly also dates a Barcelona defender. The game was Chelsea versus United and the result could all but end the fledgling hopes of Arsenal and United to steal the trophy away from the Blues. Why these two games were going on at the same time is, of course, a pretty good question for the FA, particularly as it only seems to reinforce the notion that the FA Cup just isn’t that important. The score at halftime, for those who actually care about games between the first and third placed teams in the EPL, was Chelsea 1 United 0.

The second half began largely as the first half had ended, with Arsenal in the ascendancy and playing with a comfort and poise that has so often been missing from this team over the past decade. Maybe it was the FA Cup victory last year to end the trophy drought, the Community Shield victory against City that commenced this season or the fact they have won 8 on the bounce for the first time in a decade, but even as Reading made some good runs and displayed their at times blistering pace, the Gunners continued to deal with their attacks without too much trouble, looking fluid on the counter. And then things suddenly changed, as goal line technology and Szczesny’s talent for making mistakes in big games came to Reading’s rescue, drawing them even on 54 minutes. If Arsenal didn’t go through, an inquest about why the error-prone Pole (who, of course, has already cost us a Carling Cup a few years back, with an assist from Koscielny) was even out on the pitch would begin, just as many clamor for the now “single” Klopp to be courted to replace Wenger.

As the game entered the final 30 minutes, it started to become more stretched, and Arsenal put together some good buildups, only to give the ball away before a chance could be created. In the 63rd minute, Mertesacker pulled up limp and was replaced by Gabriel and two minutes later a call that Reading fans will probably be talking about for years went against them as Debuchy clearly handled the ball in the box, with his arm pulled away from his body. One thing hard not to notice as the Gunners pushed for a winner, was the relative anonymity of Welbeck, who was largely invisible throughout the game after an early toe clip on a through ball almost gave Arsenal an early lead. In the 67th minute, Mackey fought through two Gunner defenders and got the ball to Williams in a dangerous position, though he sent his volleyed shot wide.

Arsenal seemed to settle a little from there, earning a corner in the 68th minute that Gabriel’s clever header sent toward the roof of the goal, before Federici again came to the rescue, parrying it into the crossbar. Giroud came on for the ineffective Welbeck in the 72nd minute and they should have scored within a minute, as a perfectly hit Ozil free kick found its way to the Brazilian’s head again, though this time he missed what should have been the go ahead goal. Reading earned a chance of their own in the 75th, with a corner kick that led to a blocked shot, before being cleared. The game was back and forth from here, with both teams creating half chances as the game entered its final 10 minutes.

Szczesny’s shakiness almost cost the Gunners in the 83rd minute, and then Ramsey had a good chance to score the winner again on the resultant counter, but somehow missed a gaping goal from four yards, after a nice run and rounding of the Reading keeper (while being fouled in the box, one might mention). In the 87th minute, Reading ended up with a 2 on 1, but the aging Russian Pogrebnyak couldn’t make up his mind and ultimately shot meekly from the top of the box. The game was back and forth at a blistering pace, with both teams more interested in ending it in 90 than playing on for another 30. Ramsey missed another half chance when a hard Gibbs cross found him a few yards out, though he had to react quickly with a left-footed volley and sent it over. Somehow only two minutes of extra time were added. Arsenal were able to garner a corner within the first of the two, though it came to nothing.

As with last year against Wigan, Arsenal found themselves tied 1-1 heading into 30 minutes of extra time with a chance to get back to the final – though this time with the opportunity to defend their trophy. They started the extra time with a nice run of possession, but with Cazorla sending his shot from the edge of the box over on 93 minutes. A weak shot from Gibbs ended their next attack and it appeared the Gunners were playing at a slower pace than earlier, though Coquelin continued to impress with his tackles and interceptions. Giroud was adjudged marginally offsides as he got behind the Reading two banks on 100 minutes, even as he appeared to time his run perfectly and a minute later Walcott came on for the French enforcer as the Gunners tried to end things before a second semifinal penalty shoot-out in two years.

Ramsey sent a powerful shot from 25 yards out, saved well by Federici though he was relieved to see the parry fly over the bar rather than into his net. Pogrebnyak burst forward with a chance to give Reading the lead, but his shot was well blocked and the counter ended with Sanchez shooting from the left channel. He shot weakly, but Federici, who had had an exceptional game, saw the ball go through his legs and crawl into the net. Sanchez had two and the Gunners were on the edge of getting through to the finals again, with only 15 minutes to play.

Mackey made a fine run as Reading looked to equalize things again, but his shot was high. Ozil then had a shot on the other end after some nice pressing by Giroud and the forwards, though he sent it wide. In the 108th minute, a foul by Gabriel earned him a yellow and Reading a free kick in a dangerous area, though Szczesny was able to punch out the resultant effort. Reading manager Steve Clark made his final move, sending the veteran Yokubu on for Robson-Kanu, with Giroud almost sealing it a moment later, hitting the post after a lovely sliding pass from the rampant Ozil. Williams found a small opening for Reading and shot with real power, though high and wide as the game neared the last five minutes of extra time.

Arsenal were managing the lead well until Sanchez inexplicably decided to dribble in on three Reading defenders, in search of his hat trick. But his pressing a minute later made up for the error, as Reading were having a hard time getting out of their own half and us mere mortals having a hard time understanding where the Chilean gets his insane energy level from. At 120 minutes, Walcott just about earned a penalty after one of his signature charges, with the foul adjudged to have occurred just outside the line (probably correctly). And that was it, as Arsenal squeaked through to the final 2-1 on a shocking error by Adam Federici.

As has been the case of late, Arsenal find ways to win even when they are not at their best and it was the same today, though it could have been an easier game with some better finishing. The match did advertise why the FA Cup is still such a great competition over 140 years after its birth in 1871, even if the FA and NBC fail to recognize it, with Reading pushing the second place team in the EPL to the brink of elimination. As to that other middling game going on at the same time, Chelsea essentially wrapped up the title with five games to play, holding on to beat an injury-decimated United side 1-0.

Looking at what we learned from the Arsenal-Reading game, a few very quick points: 1. Welbeck got Arsenal to this point with the winner against United, but he was largely invisible in this one and really needs to up his game if he is to compete for a starting 11 spot, 2. Ramsey can never be criticized for his effort, but after a player-of-the-match performance last weekend, looked more like the guy struggling too hard to rediscover the purple patch of Fall 2013. He needs to settle down and find that finishing touch again, 4. Ozil is a wonder to watch and his assist was a thing of beauty. He could have scored a goal and created almost all of the Gunner’s chances, controlling the game through the middle and showing the new strength in challenges, 5. Two of the less discussed signings by Wenger this year both showed their quality in this game, with Gabriel coming on for the injured Mertesacker and playing relatively well and Ospina on the bench showing why he is so important to the latest run, leading to my final point … 6. Szczesny should never play for Arsenal again. It is too bad, as he was really coming into form last season before a clear dip this fall that finally culminating in his being replaced by Ospina. Giving up such a soft goal when Arsenal were essentially cruising is unforgivable and too common an occurrence for the Polish international. It looks like the answer to a slightly modified old riddle might be no Poles to win a title, if we do the right thing and get rid of him this summer and then go on to finally capture that elusive title next term. Wembley, we’ll see you again in May!

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