In terms of splendour and fervour, no other Cup competition comes close to the FA Cup. It’s renowned for its giant-killing possibility and it offers a fascinating insight into the lower league teams of English football. Arsenal, Wigan, Hull City and Sheffield United were in the spotlight over the weekend and the FA Cup delivered once again. Arsenal breathed a sigh of relief after beating title-holders Wigan on penalties while Hull avoided being thumped by League One side Sheffield United.
Out of all the teams playing, it was arguably Arsenal who had the most at stake. After leading the Premier League for a large part of the season, Arsenal’s run came undone, as it so often does. With injuries to contend with and an apparent inability to perform against the top four, so much hinged on their performance in the FA Cup. Yes, it was only Wigan and yes, it was only the FA Cup, but for Arsenal, and more specifically Arsene Wenger, this was as big as the remainder of the season would get.
Many would feel that the Gunners winning 4-2 in the penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw after extra time was undeserved. For large parts of the game, they were as flat as they were fluent. For every few seconds of orchestrated passing, there were minutes of looking deconstructed. Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sonogo were particularly out of sorts. Sonogo was clearly out of his depth and, despite playing a small part in the Per Mertersacker equaliser, it didn’t look like he was ready for footballing challenges under pressure.
The pain and frustration in Wenger’s expression said it all and while he didn’t know it, Arsenal had dropped out of the top four following Everton’s victory over Sunderland. That minute detail will only add to the Frenchman’s woes, but many of those woes might have been made out of his own stubbornness. Wenger’s tactics have rarely wavered, unless they were forced to, and his formula has often bogged them down more than propelled them forward. Arsenal got very lucky on Saturday and the relief was palpable.
Following the win, Roy Keanne quipped that Arsenal fans were celebrating as if though they had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League final. He had also quipped that if a team feels under pressure playing a Championship team in a FA Cup semi-final, players do not deserve to play for a big team.
But pressure does funny things and pressure that starts from the top and filters down into strategy and the players can be the undoing of many.
After Santi Cazorla found the back of the net from the spot, the fans and the players were beside themselves and pressure escaped like air from a balloon. Such raw emotion might look like it lacks perspective, but after nine years of disappointment – some of that coming in Cup runs – the exuberance had plenty of perspective. Rumour has it that Wenger might be on his way out come the end of the season, whether he manages to clinch that elusive trophy or not.
They will face Hull City on 17 May 2014. Hull fell behind twice, but found the back of the net five times to make it to their first ever FA Cup semi-final. Hull’s win was similar to Arsenal’s. A nervy performance, falling behind and often tactically out-smarted, but unlike Arsenal’s stubborn gaffer, Steve Bruce adopted a new formation and introduced two strikers at half-time and his shuffle soon paid off. United continued their plucky fight, but fate had other plans for the little guy this time around.
The two teams now have a shot at silverware and while their paths there might have been similar, their current prospects could not be more different.
Bruce took over at Hull in 2012 and led the club to promotion in his first season under his guidance, Hull have won 42 out of their 93 games. They sit 13th in the Premier League and there is little troubling Bruce’s job security.
In the other corner sits Wenger. He who revolutionised Arsenal at the start of his tenure, who led them through the Invincibles season, who changed their game and made it beautiful. Wenger is the modern-day Arsenal Football Club, but his current era continues to become unhinged. To at least start to batten down the hatches is the one thing he’d really like to do before he departs.
Arsenal have already beaten Hull at the Emirates this season and face a curtain-raiser for the FA Cup final when they travel to the KC Stadium on the 20th of April. Wenger had said that he hopes the FA Cup will inject some new vigour into their League charge. Fourth spot will remain a priority for Arsenal and it is still in their reach, but there is now extra pressure.
Arsenal now have the added expectation of ending the nine-year trophy drought. That same trophy is, incidentally, the last one they managed to win on a Saturday afternoon back in May 2005.
The parallels between then and now are few and far between, with one of the few being that that was the season Mathieu Flamini arrived at the club and this is the one he returned.
They say night is always darkest before the dawn, and Wenger will be hoping that the night will finally come to an end this year. DM
Photo: Arsenal players celebrate their win over Wigan Athletic following a penalty shoot out during the English FA Cup semi-final soccer match between Arsenal and Wigan Athletic at Wembley stadium in London, Britain, 12 April 2014. EPA/ANDY RAIN
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