Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wigan 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 pens, FA Cup Semi-final)

It wasn't a vintage performance from the Gunners by any means, but it doesn't matter how we got there. We are in the FA Cup final.

At O'Neills Bar, we celebrated the win just as wild as the other Gooners all over the world. Some journalists have interpreted the sheer scale of Arsenal players' celebration as the desperation of the club that have not won silverware for 8 years. Probably they are the same people who criticised the north London club's celebration for a top-four finish last season. This game was arguably more important than the final itself in terms of repercussions that its outcome may have. If we had lost this tie, the result would have further undermined the players' confidence and belief and could have had a detrimental effect on the remaining 5 league games with nothing to look forward to. Finishing in the top four would have been a consolation goal for the disappointing season and the pressure to achieve that target would have increased even more. It was a joy to go through to the final as well as a huge relief for us.

Going into the semi-final, Arsenal's injury situation deteriorated further. As many as 12 first-teamers could be missing this match. The tie came too soon for Laurant Koscielny (calf) and Mesut Özil (hamstring), while Jack Wilshere (foot), Abu Diaby (knee) were still on their way for recovery, with the season already finished for Theo Walcott (knee) and Ryo Miyaichi (hamstring). Serge Gnabry and Nicklas Bendtner remain on the sidelines. Mathieu Flamini began a two-match ban from this game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (groin), Tomas Rosicky (thigh), and Kieran Gibbs (ankle) were all doubtful.

As it happened, Arsene Wenger made four changes from the side that started in a devastating 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park, which came as no surprise to us. The designated cup keeper, Fabianski replaced Szczesny. Aaron Ramsey started for the first time since Boxing Day in place of the suspended Flamini. The Ox overcame his groin problem, starting on the right wing, while Rosicky didn't even make the bench. Yaya Sanogo replaced Olivier Giroud, who had been looking increasingly tired of late.

The Gunners started the game brightly. Yaya Sanogo had the best chance of the first half with his powerful header, which he managed to direct downwards, but unfortunately it was straight at the keeper. We had a few more chances, including Sanogo getting in behind the Wigan defence, but lacked a cutting edge in the final ball.

In the 63rd minute, Mertesacker gave away a penalty. We cannot argue the decision, but we were so unlucky. In the build-up leading to the penalty, Monreal was injured, resulting in McManaman exploiting the vast space behind him and the Spanish left-back was stretchered off with a dead leg. As Arsenal mounted pressure in search for an equaliser, Sagna's header hit the woodwork. Gibb's goal-bound header was diverted wide by Scott Carson's hand. When we started thinking that this could be one of those days when everything goes against us, the illusive equaliser arrived in the 82nd minute, when Mertesacker got behind Wigan defence and steered the Ox's effort into the back of the net.

In extra time, the Ox hit the woodwork among other chances. The tie was heading for a tense ending by penalty shootout. Fabianski heroically saved the first two spot-kicks to give his team-mates a massive advantage. Arteta, Källström, Giroud, and Cazorla made no mistake. The Gunners were deadly in their penalty taking.

After the match, quite a few people were sniffy about how Arsenal beat Wigan on penalties, but did Manchester City walk over Wigan? Wigan may be a Championship side, but they were the cup holders and have beaten one of the best teams in the country to get this far in this competition.

This tie came at a very difficult time for Arsenal. Their confidence was completely shot last weekend. Despite their faltering form, they went into the game as strong favourites, which mounted extra pressure on top of the hopes of ending their 8-year trophy drought. The ongoing injury crisis meant that personnel were limited to play Arsenal brand of free-flowing football, which also requires solid confidence for sharp and positive passing.

Some criticised Arsenal's approach in the latter stages of normal time, which resorted to long balls to the two tall strikers, claiming that it spoke volumes for Arsene's desperation. I wonder if they could be the same people who accused of the Frenchman's rigidity over tactics and lack of a plan B last weekend. After the bright start which saw Arsenal attack with pace through the Ox and Sanogo, Arsenal fell into the usual predictable passing game with "sterile possession". They looked to have run out of imagination, but the switch to a more direct approach after Wigan's goal certainly changed the game. Arsene Wenger even changed his formation to a kind of 4-1-3-2 system. Whether you may call it a desperation or not, it was a breath of fresh air and good to see Arsene try something different.

Arsenal may not have played easy-on-the-eye football, but they created enough chances worthy of a victory, with total 27 shots, 9 of which were on target with 2 hitting the woodwork. Meanwhile, Wigan were reduced to just 2 shots on target one of those was the penalty. They didn't look like scoring from open play.

Regardless of performances, going through this tie was crucial to us. Having negotiated the tough semi-final at a very difficult time, we now look forward to the final against Hull City on 17 May. We should have all Koscielny, Özil, and Wilshere (and even Diaby) back from injury by then, while Ramsey will be fully match fit and hopefully have rediscovered his earlier form. The team should have enough quality to beat Hull and hopefully, will be able to win the cup by playing beautiful football with renewed confidence by then (although we wouldn't mind if they won it ugly again). Now our focus shifts to the Premier League as the battle for the top-four heats up.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 8
Had only 2 saves to make in 120 minutes. He was unlucky not to save the penalty in normal time as he guessed the right way. He was superb in saving the first two penalties, helping Arsenal's cause a great deal.

Sagna: 7
Arguably our best defender. Had a good chance to score after Cazorla's corner was nodded on by Vermaelen, but he shot it wide from an acute angle. Unlucky not score when his other effort hit the woodwork.

Mertesacker: 7
Made an uncharacteristic error, bring down McManaman. The Wigan midfielder did not have the close control of the ball and Bacary Sagna was perfectly placed to cover for him. There was no need for the German centre-back to slide in. Later on, he made amends by scoring an equaliser. 

Vermaelen: 7
Solid display.

Monreal: 6
Struggled to contain McManaman at times. Replaced by Gibbs on 63rd minutes after suffering a dead leg on a heavy challenge by McManaman, which led to the penalty.

Areta: 7
Did his job quietly, making 6 tackles, 1 interception, and 75 passes with a 89% accuracy. Kept his nerve firmly as our first taker in penalty shoot-out.

Ramsey: 7
Playing 112 minutes on his first start in three and half months was a hard task. Made 4 tackles, had 1 shot and created 2 chances. 

Cazorla: 7
Not eye-catching, but did his job. Made 3 key passes. Scored an all important winning penalty.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Man of the Match. Provided an assist for Mertesacker's equaliser. Had 5 shots, one of which was on target, and created 5 chances. His passing success rate was better than usual, at 85%.  

Podolski: 6
We know he is our best finisher, but he needs to get into better positions.

Sanogo: 6
His touch let him down when he had a glorious opportunity to score after getting in behind the defence. Had 9 shots, 5 of which were on target. His control of the ball and finishing need to improve. He created 3 good chances for his team-mates, but we desperately need a goalscorer.


Gibbs: 7
Replaced injured Monreal in the 63rd minute. Made an impact through his attacking contribution and didn't put foot wrong defensively either. Unlucky not to score with his brilliant header.

Giroud: 6
Came on for Poldi in the 68th minute. Forced a fine save from Carson. Cool penalty.

Källström: 6
Replaced Ramsey in the 112nd minute. Little impact during extra time apart from having 2 shots off target, but the experienced Sweden international scored a good penalty with great composure.

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