Getting to Wembley hasn't been easy for us in recent memory but after a few tough matches we are going to the final to face Aston Villa on May 30. After the nine year drought we won the FA Cup last year and this year we have the chance to win it again. We won the cup two years in a row in 01-02 and 02-03 and we will enter the final as the favorite just as we did last year but as last year showed us, you just never know what can happen in a cup final.
Similar to the match against Burnley, our semi-final against Reading was not exactly a game that will go down as a thriller. Both sides struggled to get a handle on the match and it was unclear who was going to be off to the final. It was fitting that Alexis was the player to get us trough. His two goals was enough to put the match to bed even if it took 120 minutes to get there. I was simply glad that the match didn't go to penalties. There is nothing worse that losing a place in the final due to a fluky penalty system like we nearly experienced against Wigan last season.
The lack of attacking threat may have been due to the changes Wenger made to the starting lineup. Debuchy and Gibbs started over Bellerin and Monreal. Welbeck was on in place of Giroud as the lone striker. Debuchy looked as rusty as the Tin Man in a swimming pool and Gibbs wasn't proving to Wenger that he deserved to start over Monreal. I fully expected Wenger to make a few changes to the squad as he often does when the cup matches come around. We know he will play the back up keeper as that seems to be status quo now. I should not be surprised that he changed the fullbacks but I am as the length of time after the break was sufficient enough to give the usual starters a full run out. Debuchy is clearly the first choice right back due to his experience but after a couple of lengthy absences because of injury I thought he would have been subbed if he did start. Playing the full 120 minutes was good for him to get back to full match fitness but his lack of pace and poor decision making was obviously a detriment to our forward play. Bellerin has been playing at the position for so much of the season that our forwards and midfield seem adjusted to him even if he shows his youth and inexperience from time to time. Wenger obviously trusts the Spaniard but wants his first choice to get more match time as the season closes.
Welbeck over Giroud was not much of a surprise because we have seen him start in the match against Manchester United and in other cup matches this season. Wenger also gave Sanogo a game over Giroud this time last season and Welbeck is ahead of Sanogo in the development department. Giroud however has been on fire and is always good for a goal especially in a game like this. His goal scoring aside, it was his hold up play and intelligent passing was missed up front on Saturday. When he came on, we looked far more likely to get the go-ahead goal. It was Alexis who took the headlines with his brace though.
Alexis, like most of the team, wasn't playing to their full potential that we have seen this season but his tenacity and never say die attitude are what makes him such a world class player. When Ozil sent that pass into his path I was certain that it would be a goal. His control of the ball to line the shot up with so little time is exactly what was needed in this match. The second goal was from a tight angle and it took a howler from their keeper for it find the back of the net. Despite this, you can never rule the Chilean out and any defender who gives him too much space puts their team at risk as he is more than capable to finding the back of the net from what seems like anywhere on the pitch.
I have to give the Reading keeper an honorable mention because he really did have an outstanding game. Without those incredible saves on Mertesacker, Gabriel, Ozil and others he kept his team in sight of the final but this was always going to be a match that took a mistake to gift the game to the opposition and it was unfortunate to happen to him. I don't lose sleep over it, as I am ecstatic that we made it past Reading but as someone who enjoys the keeper position, I cringe to see a keeper in such good match form to give up that kind of goal. It happens from time to time and our sympathy won't change that but we should be respectful to teams like Reading who put up one Hell of a fight and aren't total classless scum like Spurs, Chelsea, Stoke etc. They made us play a tense game and of course we would have loved to have a 3-0 match, we knew that Reading wouldn't roll over and die. They came to play and play they did. Winning tough is just as important if not more so than winning with ease. It is a far greater learning experience and will prepare us to face a Villa side in the final that has been rejuvenated by a comical Tim Sherwood.
Speaking of Villa, how hilarious is it that Liverpool lost to Villa with all the hype that the Liverpool supporters put on facing us in the final. They were so confident that their captain would get a lovely send off by winning the FA Cup on his birthday in his final game. They started their celebrations a bit prematurely didn't they? It would have been pretty funny to beat them in the final but I would be lying if I said they would be an easy opponent even though we destroyed them a few weeks ago. Villa is a team that we can and should beat in the final just like Hull was last year but like Hull we will need to be on our guard as Villa won't simply give the trophy to us. This is one of their few chances to get a trophy as they are nowhere near title contenders so they will be playing like their season depends on it because it does. We cannot take them for granted or treat them like a League Two side.
Coming up is the match against Chelsea and I am nervously looking forward to it. I believe we will win. I do not know why, but I just feel it in my bones that this will be our year to remove the Mourinho monkey from our back and beat him to death with Gabriel's terrifying face.
Until next week,
I have one question to ask you:
What did she wear?
An interesting thing occurs when Arsenal play well and the wins keep coming one after another: a lot of the hate and vitriol begins to disappear and smiles accompany the optimism in all of us gooners. Yesterday I sat down at my computer to write this and I found myself at a loss for words. Unsure of what to write, I began to rattle my brain for ideas and talking points and I wasn't coming up with anything. Eventually the thought came to me: everything is ok,. A top four place is within our grasp, we play a semi-final in the FA Cup and we look like a solid squad. Everything is fine.
Not to say that I am complacent, I just have a slight calm in my nerves that I haven't felt when watching this team play over the last several years, or even earlier this season. How many times have we watched a match similar to the one against Burley last weekend only to have the script tell a different ending. We have watched us concede a soft goal to see the opposition tie the game then in the dying minutes we gift them another goal off a set piece or penalty. A winning position turned on its head and we were left trying to figure out just what happened.
Not this time. Against Burnley, while it wasn't the most interesting match, we never looked like we would give up the lead. Burnley had a couple of chances throughout the match but most of the time it was a thorough, methodical defensive display. We started well and that early pressure gave us the goal we needed to win. Now I would be lying if I said that initially I wasn't nervous, but I was. The fear of giving up a stupid goal fills us all with dread but that fear is slowly withering away. My confidence grew to the point where I felt it was a boring match. Our squad was dealing with everything Burnley could muster and our attack didn't need to exert itself trying to find an equalizer or a late winner. It was a comfortable performance, one that we should expect when facing such opposition.
With that calm, assured performance last weekend, it should put us in a good mindset this weekend. I know the cliches of mental strength, taking it one game at a time etc are usually said by Wenger and the squad but as long as we don't underestimate Reading and the remaining teams we face this season we will have built a great foundation for next season. I know we still have to face Chelsea and Manchester United this season and those are generally not matches that we have performed well in recent memory. Despite this I have remained confident that this is the season that we will put the doubt to bed. Twice this season we dealt blows to Manchester clubs and we took most of the wind out of Liverpool's sails as well with that thrashing two weeks ago.
I want that monkey removed from our back and thrown back at Chelsea. Hopefully that monkey is Donkey Kong and he ties Mourinho to a post and throws barrels nonstop at him. The media loves mentioning Wenger's record against Mourinho led Chelsea teams and it less than flattering. Chelsea are not the invincible side that Talksport would like everyone to think they are. That goal last week against QPR was a lucky break and I do feel it handed them the title but they are beatable. We have the confidence and the run of form to do it, just like the Manchester clubs. Like before our defense will need to be up for the task and our productive forwards will need to be ready to capitalize on any chance. From head to Coquelin we will need to want that match more than them. I am looking forward to it with that same calm I mentioned earlier. We walk into the match still as underdogs and that is a good thing. Chelsea has the title and they won't need to risk more than they have to. Of course, Mourinho loves to throw backhanded comments about Wenger and Arsenal, especially when we lose so it is time for us to win and instead of gloating, we walk on, finish the season and stick it to them next year.
It is nice to be optimistic about our squad for once instead of griping about how we need this or that. Sure we have a few holes in the squad that need to be plugged with a quality player or two but if there is one thing this season has told us is that never discredit anything. If you would have told me at the start of the season that Coquelin would be indispensable, Bellerin would be challenging Debuchy for the top right back spot, Monreal would play better than Gibbs, Giroud having a high finishing rate, and Welbeck would score the goal that knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup, I would have fixed your tinfoil hat and fashioned a straitjacket for you as I loaded you on the Hannibal Lecter hand truck. Anything can happen in this sport, be it good or bad, and right now it is looking good for the Gunners. A few more matches are left in the season and we can look ahead to the future, but first we must take on Reading in the FA Cup at Wembley in a semi-final match. One win sees us in the final defending our cup against either Villa or Liverpool (hopefully Villa).
So lets smile and sing songs of the Arsenal as they take on Reading, Chelsea, Manchester United and the rest of the clubs we have to face in this final run of the season. I will be watching intently at both FA Cup matches this weekend and maybe the football gods will smile upon us as we win and Liverpool lose or maybe not. Maybe it would be better for them to win and we can beat them again in the final.
Whatever happens, I remain confident and optimistic.
Come on you Gunners.
As most of you know I am not a fan of the international breaks that interrupt the season fill the sports news outlets with meaningless scores and stats as our players get whisked to all parts of the globe to participate in friendlies (or in this case, Euro qualifiers). As a gooner this is more frustrating because our players like to end up on the wrong side of the physicians table after these matches and we are down several good players for extended periods of time. Fortunately, this did not occur and we got to see a wonderful spring match against Liverpool on Saturday.
A fine 4-1 win over Liverpool is always a joy to watch but this match had a lot riding on it. As the years have passed we have been constantly ridiculed for being unable to take points off of teams in the top four. I know Liverpool isn't in the top four but they finished in the top four last season and are a team that we got demolished by at Anfield. 4-1 is as close to replicating the reverse score last season without matching it and man for man, we played like the better team. We were dominant almost all match and with the exception of a fifteen minute stretch in the first half, we controlled every moment. Liverpool did that to us last season and it was nice to return the favor.
We know how important those top four positions are and a win over Liverpool essentially solidified our place in the Champions League. With City crashing to Palace on Monday, we have a damn good chance to finish as high as second, but no lower than third. Not only did we book our place but we may have ended any others chances of getting in. Liverpool do have a chance still but it is a long shot at this point and it requires United to drop a lot of points in the final weeks. Frankly, I don't really care what happens to them as long as we stay in the Champions League.
The match itself was fantastic and we are seeing the makings of a strong team that can truly challenge for the title next year. After a season of trying to get many new players to fit in and gel, we are hitting our stride and showing the league what the Arsenal are all about. Wenger has gotten us back to playing the style of football we all want and expect at Arsenal. From front to back we are playing with the grace and confidence of a winning side. Beating City away earlier in such dominant fashion was a massive catalyst for our winning run. With the exception of the Southampton and Sp*rs losses, we have been positive to great in our matches. Sure we have had a few nervy games here and there but overall we should be pleased with how our progress is coming.
Progress describes our season as a whole from a results standpoint and from a personnel standpoint. As I stated earlier we have had our problems with the top teams. United, City, Liverpool and Chelsea always seem to have our number and it has become a forgone conclusion that we will choke against them. Not this season. We have taken points away from Liverpool, and beaten both City and United away from home. Chelsea still remain at large but as the match approaches I am feeling confident that we will win. I said the same leading up the FA Cup match at Old Trafford and I will say it again. We have the confidence and the momentum to finally wipe that smug smile off of Jose Mourinho's face. It would be better to steal the title from them but even a Chelsea team that is off the pace at the moment won't give up the title so close to the end. If we had a few more matches left in the season then I would suggest that it is possible, not this time though.
It is hard not to look back and suggest that our progress isn't as great as we may think. The early part of the season was littered with draws to lesser opposition and to make matters worse, most of those matches we were leading and then conceded stupid goals. My response to that is as the season went on we began to seal the leaks in the top four while Alexis was busy scoring goals and keeping us in the fight for the top four. Our back line didn't look solid because it was hard for them to stay healthy. Thus we had a rotating door of players filling in. Debuchy, our starting right back who was to replace Sagna, was injured long turn immediately forcing our hand to play a young Chambers. Then an injury to Koscielny forced Chambers center and a young Bellerin at right back. Two young players in our starting defensive lineup? Not a great proposition but the two ended up working out to varying degrees. I wont fill this space with superlatives for Bellerin but as you know I am a big fan of his, especially his speed and cover on the right. Playing with Alexis is paying off as he is replicating Alexis' never say die attitude and now seeing the young Spaniard at right back isn't a worrying sight. Also, that goal against Liverpool, a real beauty from a defensive player and the run leading up to it was excellent as well.
Our squad as usual, gets hit hard by injuries in more than just defense and the loss of Arteta was a big one forcing Flamini, Ox, Ramsey and more to fill that defensive midfield role. At the January transfer window we were all clamoring for a DM acquisition but a new shiny player didn't signed. Instead we pulled a player who looked like he was on his way out, Coquelin, into the first team. A gamble by Wenger that has paid off. Coquelin looks like a man possessed and at this point, is one of the first names on the team sheet. Like Bellerin, I will not fill this post with superlatives but needless to say his impact has been instrumental in our run to the finish. Giroud, also suffered a long term injury but luckily we had Alexis to fill the goal scoring gap but upon his return, Giroud is one of the most clinical finishers in the second half of the season. This burden being lifted from Alexis is good for the Chilean as he was clearly carrying the weight of the team. Giroud has taken a large chunk of that load off of him and after that goal against Liverpool, Alexis is looking back to the player we had at the start.
With seven matches remaining in the season we look to close out strong. Chelsea and United are the last big tests we have and as the old cliché goes, just take it one match at a time. Our progress is clear, we have made up in strides as the season went on after hitting an injury stumbling block early on. Lets close out with wins finish second (or first if Mourinho finally snaps and holds Stamford Bridge hostage and threatens to blow up the moon with a giant laser).
Until next week,
Come on you Gunners!