Thursday, May 22, 2014

Arsenal 3 Hull City 2 (AET) FA Cup Final

Arsenal went into the FA Cup final as heavy favourites. They have done the "double" over their Cup final opponents this season and the two teams' latest forms couldn't have been more contrasting, with Arsenal winning all of their last five games, including a convincing 3-0 victory over Hull, while the Humberside club took only one point from a possible 15. However, as Arsenal supporters, we never expected anything straightforward in the final and we didn't worry for nothing. Arsenal never fail to make life difficult for themselves and us.

Arsene Wenger made only two changes from the side that started in a 2-0 victory over Norwich on Sunday. As expected, Per Mertesacker came into the team after having a rest the previous weekend. Last weekend's goalscorer, Carl Jenkinson didn't even make the bench as the club captain, Thomas Veramelen was fit enough to be on the bench. Santi Cazorla replaced Tomas Rosicky after also having been rested for the Norwich game. What raised our eyebrows was Wenger's choice of the goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski got the nod ahead of our regular No.1 keeper, Wojciech Szczesny. Perhaps Wenger kept his word to give Fabianski a status as this season's Cup keeper, but after his controversial decision last weekend to take Szczesny's chance to win the Golden Glove away and considering that Fabianski was clearly going to leave the Club at the end of the season, the selection seemed to be an odd one to us.

Hull took a lead only 3 minutes after kick-off. At O'Neill's bar, we were looking at a frozen picture on the screens at that time, without knowing what was happening. Only the commentary suggested that something unbelievable was happening. By the time we got action back on our screens, Arsenal were already 1-0 down. Our defence was shocking. And things would get even worse 4 minutes later. Hull scored from another set-piece. This was a massive blow. We were quite sure that Arsenal would come back from 1-0 down, but overturning a two-goal deficit in a Cup final was an arduous task. In fact,  no team had come back from 2-0 down to win the FA Cup since 1966. Furthermore, it might have been worse had Kieran Gibbs not cleared off the line shortly afterwards.

Arsenal had to recover from the nightmare start quickly. Therefore, Santi's excellent free-kick in the 17th minute was so important. The Spaniard's right-footed effort was his best free-kick in England. The Asturiano was apparently a prominent dead-ball specialist in La Liga, but like other Arsenal players, he lost his nous in those situations after he had joined Arsenal. Only recently against West Brom, a significant improvement in his corners has caught the eye. After RVP's departure, we have been longing for somebody who can score out of nothing without relying on intricate build-ups, although it may perhaps be not quite in line with Arsenal ethos.

The goal changed the whole dynamic of the game. The fact that the Gunners scored a goal from virtually their first chance gave them a hope and belief. After Santi's goal, it was all Arsenal but we could not find an equaliser despite so many goal-scoring chances in the first half. Mikel Arteta praised later Arsene Wenger's half-time talk. The boss' instruction was to stay calm. Yaya Sanogo was sent onto the pitch to replace Poldi and Wenger changed its formation to a 4-4-2. Arsenal looked better with two strikers up front. In the 72nd minute, the illusive equaliser finally arrived. It looked a bit fortuitous as Sagna's header from Santi's corner took a deflection on a Hull defender before Koscielny flick it to the back of the net, but Koscielny took it very well on the turn. 10 minutes later, Gibbs had a glorious chance to win the game, but he blasted it over the bar. At the end of normal time, we were saying that there would be only one winner in this game.

Arsene Wenger admitted later on that he took a gamble to avoid a penalty shoot-out at all cost. The Frenchman brought on two players who are not penalty takers at the cost of Santi Cazorla, one of the designated penalty taker (Wenger said that he wouldn't put Özil on his penalty list). As Giroud and Gibbs were suffering from cramp and a hamstring strain, respectively, at the latter stages of extra time, Arsenal were short of penalty takers, but Wenger's gamble paid off. Two pairs fresh legs were brought on in the form of Rosicky and Wilshere, which made a difference as the Tigers looked noticeably tired. But even before the changes, we knew that not a lot of teams could cope with Arsenal when they impose their high-tempo game. Then, in 11 minutes from the end of extra time, Ramsey fired home after Giroud laid it off for the Welshman with a beautiful back-heel pass. There was another major scare to survive before the final whistle, but it was a happy ending at full time. Wenger summed up the game by stating that Arsenal made a demonstration on how not to start a final and also how to come back.

At O'Neill's bar in Los Altos, our celebration was understandably wild. We waited for this moment for 9 years.

It was a dramatic Cup final we will all remember for years to come. Both teams battled hard and it was an absorbing game. Hull may have wanted it more at the beginning of the game, but Arsenal showed their desire and determination after falling behind. Only poor performances came from the officials. Steve Bruce might have rightfully moaned about the ref's decision to give Arsenal a corner kick that led to Koscielny's equaliser, but Hull were also lucky to get away with moving their free-kick by 8 yards forward in the making of their second goal. Also, Arsenal had 4 penalty shouts in the game. Tom Huddlestone hauled down Giroud, holding the French striker around the neck. There was a handball claim, which we must admit was a 50:50 chance of getting a penalty. Two cases, both of which Santi was involved, were stone-wall penalties.

Ramsey was named Budweiser Man of the Match, but we didn't think that any individual player stood out in this game. Ramsey had a few rash shots by his admission before he finally found the net. Stats-based's Man of the Match was Curtis Davies of Hull City. Daily Mail, well known for their anti-Arsenal inclination, named Bacary Sagna, who is believed to leave the Club after the end of his contract this summer, Man of the Match. Despite no standout players, Arsenal played solidly as a team after a very shaky start.

One may say that this game was a microcosm of Arsenal's 2013/14 season. We certainly went through a lot of ups and downs since the 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, but every time the team had disappointment, they responded positively. This FA Cup final win came at the end of their fine run of form after a devastating 3-0 loss at Goodison Park. During that run, Arsenal secured a place in next season's Champions League qualifier. Capped with the FA Cup win, we can now conclude that Arsenal's 2013/14 season was a successful one.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 6
Perhaps he could do little about Hull's 2 goals, but his rash decision to come out of the area nearly cost us the game. With two defenders coming back, there was no need for him to make a challenge.

Sagna: 7
Worked tirelessly. Solid display.

Mertesacker: 6
Below-par performance from Arsenal's defensive leader and organiser. His slip near the end of the game gave us a fright.

Koscielny: 7
Scored an equaliser. Made 10 clearances.

Gibbs: 7
Saved Alex Bruce's goal-bound header off the line, which is arguably one of the flash points of the game. Registered more clearances (11) than any other Arsenal player. However, he was guilty for Hull's second goal, slow to react. Also, his lack of composure let him down when he blazed his effort over the bar after Sanogo found him unmarked 6 yards out.

Arteta: 7
Made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions.

Ramsey: 8
Took his goal very well first time. Made 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, and a whopping 105 passes, including 2 key passes, with an 88% passing success rate. Had 7 shots, 2 of which were on target. In the run-up to Hull's second goal, he was beaten by Quinn too easily and allowed him to deliver a cross into the box. It wasn't his best game, but he did not stop driving forward. His stamina and determination had a big impact on the game.

Cazorla: 8
Scored a screamer. It demonstrated his sheer quality.

Özil: 7
Had two great chances in the first half when we were pushing for an equaliser, but spurned them by miskicking from Poldi's cross and having his volley nodded away. Although he created 2 chances, it was somewhat disappointing that our record signing did not shine in the big game.

Podolski: 6
Made 16 passes and 23 touches in 60 minutes. Although he made a couple of great runs and created a chance for 
Özil, he was not much involved. Replaced by Sanogo in the 61st minute.

Giroud: 8
Provided an assist for Ramsey's winner through a deft back heel pass. Unlucky not to score when his header hit the woodwork and when his goal-bound effort was saved superbly by McGregor. Had 6 shots, 2 of which are on target. Created more chances (5) than any other player on the pitch. His finishing left something to be desired at times, but his link-up play was excellent.


Sanogo: 7
Replaced Poldi in the 61st minute. Had 4 shots, 1 of which was on target. One of his effort narrowly missed goal. It would have been a fairy tale ending if he had scored his first goal in an Arsenal shirt in the biggest game of the season. He certainly got himself about and posed a threat to the Hull defence.

Rosicky: 6
Came on for Cazorla in the 105th minute. Had a glorious chance to make it 4-2 when Wilshere's pass found him on the right flank, but his effort was blocked off the line. 

Wilshere: 6
Replaced Özil in the 105th minute.


Arsene Wenger: 8
All his substitution decisions were spot-on and his tactical change to 4-4-2 had a big positive impact as well.


Lee Probert: 6
How we didn't get at least 2 penalties (both against fouls on Santi) was beyond us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Norwich 0 Arsenal 2

With Arsenal having secured next season's Champions League qualification and Norwich all but relegated, this game seemingly had nothing to play for except for pride. Mathematically, Arsenal had a chance of claiming third place by overtaking Chelsea, but that was as slight as Norwich's chance of staying up. So the atmosphere was similarly relaxed as the previous game against West Brom.

Although there was nothing at stake for either club, there was one individual honour riding on this game. It was the Golden Glove award. Wojciech Szczesny was one clean sheet away from grabbing the prize prior to the game and he had a good chance of winning it as the closest contender on the same number of the clean sheet, Petr Cech, was already ruled out for the season after undergoing a shoulder surgery. So when we saw the teamsheet, we couldn't believe that Wenger named Fabianski in the starting line-up with Wojciech dropped to the bench. This decision caused controversy on Twitter and Facebook among the Gooners as soon as the team news was revealed. After the match, Wenger stated he was yet to decided on the team that he would pick for the FA Cup final against Hull City and did not rule out Fabianski's chance of playing in the Cup final. However, we now expect Szczesny to play between the sticks on Saturday. Fabianski has been brilliant in the FA Cup competition this season, but he is set to leave the Club at the end of the season and it is important that our No.1 keeper will play in our most significant game that could affect the Club's future.

This was the most unexpected change of all, although some changes were widely expected with the FA Cup final looming. Wenger made five changes to the side that started in a comfortable 1-0 win over West Brom last Sunday. Per Mertesacker was completely rested as he didn't even make a trip with the squad. Bacary Sagna moved to the centre-back position alongside Laurant Koscielny, while Carl Jenkinson came into the right-back position. Fit-again Kieran Gibbs replaced Nacho Monreal at the left-back. Aaron Ramsey came in for Mathieu Flamini, after missing the West Brom game through a thigh strain. Tomas Rosicky replaced Santi Cazorla, who was also completely rested. Surprisingly, Giroud kept his place despite having played most games this season after Per Mertesacker. The team selection was different from usual in terms of defenders, but certainly a strong side offensively. The substitute line-up also looked attack-minded, with Monreal as the only defender on the bench.

The game was again often a slow-tempo affair. In fact, Norwich started more brightly, but as Arsenal settled into the game, they started finding their rhythm and the difference in quality became more obvious between the two teams. Girouds' efforts drew two fine saves from John Ruddy, while Poldi also tested the English keeper. Ramsey's stunning goal demonstrated the Welshman's technical ability at a high level. He made a remarkable leap in his development this season. Jenko's goal was fortuitous and somewhat scrappy, but it came at the end of a fluent and ruthless team movement. It was also good for him to score his first goal for the club. Had it not been for Ruddy's heroics, Arsenal would have won the game emphatically. As a matter of fact, the Londoners registered 8 shots on target out of 14 shots in total.

At the other end, Fabianski also produced a few good saves. Norwich had total 11 shots, of which 5 were on target. In fact, named the Polish keeper Man of the Match. We must admit that it was a commendable performance in the game that could be his last appearance in an Arsenal shirt and maybe Wenger's selection was somewhat vindicated. On the other hand, the Sky Sports site and Setanta chose Aaron Ramsey as the Man of the Match. We think that the Wales midfielder deserved the Man of the Match award just for that sublime volley.

Arsenal ended their 2013/14 Premier League campaign on a high with a fifth straight win. There are some Gooners out there who still don't know how to make out this season, but we think that it was a positive one for the Club. This season's point tally was our best in the last 6 seasons. According to Wenger, 79 points is the highest tally ever to finish fourth. Arsenal spent more days (128) at the top of the league than any other club this season. A few weeks ago, we were disappointed with the prospect that Arsenal would find themselves in the usual nail-biting end-of-season scrap for fourth place, but in the end, they secured a place in Europe's elite competition for the 17th consecutive season with 2 games to spare. The north London club finished their campaign closer to the title chasers, 3 points behind third-placed Chelsea, than fifth-placed Everton. St. Totteringham's Day arrived as early as at the end of April this season, with our north London rivals finishing 10 points behind us. There is always a regret after such a good start to the season and a long spell at the top of the table, but the fact only highlights that we can compete at the highest level of the top-flight English football. There can be no doubt that injuries cost us a realistic shot at the title but we must have more strength in depth.  Happily, we still have the  are FA Cup final to look forward to.

There are more positives from this game. Jenko scored his first goal for Arsenal. As a life-long Arsenal fan himself, he has a lot of sympathy among the Arsenal fan base and his enthusiasm in the celebration was shared with the travelling supporters.

Abu Diaby and Jack Wilshere made their first appearances in 14 months and 8 weeks respectively. It took Jack some while to assert himself in the game, but he looked sharp enough. Diaby also got involved and looked reasonably sharp (considering the fact that he always looked rusty in the first couple of games every time he came back from injury).

Now we have a big game this weekend which could turn an encouraging season into a massively successful one. As Arsenal fans, we don't expect anything straightforward in the Cup final. We also know that there are a lot of Gooners who are afraid of a repeat of the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, but Szczesny is more experienced and mature, while Koscielny has largely cut out his lapse of concentration this season. We are confident that this group of players would do what it takes to lift the trophy.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 8
Made a few great saves. Especially, he saved bravely at the feet of onrushing Snodgrass.

Jenkinson: 8
Scored his first goal in an Arsenal shirt. Great going forward.

Sagna: 7
His great games often come from the centre-back position and this was no exception. Made 11 clearances. However, Arsenal won only 33.3% of all aerial duels. Prior to this game, Arsenal had the second best figure in the league after Stoke at around 55%. Is this just a coincidence or does Mertesacker's absence have something to do with it?

Koscielny: 7
Rock solid. 

Gibbs: 7
Had a hand in the second goal by running down the left flank and cutting back to find Poldi, whose shot was blocked only for Jenkinson to poke into the net.

Arteta: 7
Did a great job mopping up loose balls in front of the back four. Made an impressive 6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 92 passes with a 97% passing success rate.

Ramsey: 8
Took his goal superbly. He timed his run well to arrive in the box, stepped back to give himself a space and struck Giroud's cross perfectly first time in the top corner on the far side.

Rosicky: 7
Kept going.

Özil: 7
Created 5 chances and made 81 passes with a 94% accuracy. 

Podolski: 7
Always looked dangerous. Had 4 shots, one of which was on target. Made 3 tackles.

Giroud: 7
Provided an assist for Ramsey's goal through a perfect chipped cross. He should have done better when he came one-on-one with the keeper with so much time and space. On the other goal-scoring chance, he was unlucky not to score after making a beautiful turn and trying a curler, which forced a superb save from John Ruddy.


Wilshere: 6
Replaced Ramsey in the 63rd minute.

Diaby: 6
Came on for Rosicky in the 74th minute. 

Sanogo: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 74th minute. Looked hungry and put himself about. Had a great chance to score.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Arsenal 1 West Brom 0

Everything went according to the scenario that we, Gooners, hoped and Arsenal secured a top-four finish without even playing a day earlier, when Everton were beaten by Manchester City 3-2. After their devastating 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park, Arsenal's fate was in the Merseyside club's hands at one time. Since then, the tables have been turned, largely helped by Everton's slip-ups against Crystal Palace and Southampton. As a result, we have secured yet another season of Champions League football (provided that we safely navigate through play-offs in August). In fact, Arsenal are set to enjoy their 18th successive season in Champions League, a feat that only Real Madrid can better.

Arsene Wenger made only one change from the side that started in a comprehensive 3-0 win over Newcastle on Monday night. Mathieu Flamini came in for Aaron Ramsey, who was widely regarded as "rested" due to what was described as "minor" thigh strain. The Welshman was not even on the bench. Perhaps, if the top-four finish had still been at stake, Wenger might have been tempted to take a gamble, but it was not worth taking a risk with an FA Cup final looming in the fortnight's time. Bacary Sagna was a major doubt prior to the game, suffering a knee problem, but he was fit enough to feature in what could be his last ever home game as his contract expires at the end of the season. He had a good game. On the lap of appreciation, a tradition after the end of the last home game of the season, the French right-back was received by the home fans with a song "We want you to stay". Another piece of big news was that Abu Diaby made his comeback to the squad for the first time in more than 13 months. After the long rehabilitation from a cruciate knee ligament injury, he was rewarded with a place on the bench (fortunately he managed not to get injured).

Knowing that Arsenal's place in the next season's Champions League had already been booked, it was a comfortable afternoon for us. The relaxed mood was shared by the fans and players. Arsenal started the game with freedom, but the pace of the game was slow  most of the time, especially once Arsenal had taken a lead. We thought that the quality of Aaron Ramsey was missed in the final third, but the mental factor might have played a big role in the lack of intensity. It wasn't a classic Arsenal display, and we were disappointed that the Gunners did not win this game emphatically after scoring 3 goals in each of the last 3 games. In fact, the north London club has been playing some fantastic football since the return of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil. So it was a somewhat disappointing game, but considering that there was nothing riding on this game, we could only say that the job was accomplished in a professional manner, with no risky tackle that could have led to injury or suspension. Despite the narrow scoreline, it was a fairly comfortable win. There is little for us to complain about after coming away with three points without even getting out of first gear.

Arsenal's efficient performance this day will probably not stay in fans' memory for very long, but the three points were definitely a step forward from last season, which saw Arsenal finish fourth on 73 points. One more win this season will make 79 points, in which there is no shame at all. In another year, that could have won the title. As a matter of fact, the north London club won the title in the 1997/98 season with 78 points. A top-four finish has been our target for a while since we fell out of the title race, but we are now closer to the title leaders than fifth-placed Everton.

Talking about records, with another clean sheet, Wojciech Szczesny can claim the Premier League Golden Glove Award. He is currently neck and neck with Chealsea's Petr Cech on 16 clean sheets. With the Czech keeper already ruled out for the rest of the season through a shoulder injury, the young Pole has a good chance of winning the award this season. Hopefully, this will give him and his team-mates an incentive to win the next game. The Norwich game seemingly offers the Gunners nothing to play for, but it is important that the team will go into the FA Cup final with some momentum behind them. It is interesting to see what kind of team Wenger is going to field in the final game of the season.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
With West Brom registering only 1 shot on target, he had little to do.

Sagna: 8's Man of the Match. Solid defensive display with an important tackle. Offensively, made 2 key passes.

Mertesacker: 8
Put in a couple of  match-saving blocks. Made 3 interceptions and a whopping 13 clearances. Made 61 passes with a 92% accuracy.

Koscielny: 7
Solid. Made 5 interceptions and 9 clearances. Made 51 passes with an impressive 100% passing success rate.

Monreal: 7
Had a consistent game. Replaced by Vermaelen in the 80th minute.

Arteta: 7
Made 62 passes with a 97% passing accuracy, including 15 long balls, all accurate. Made 3 tackles and 3 interceptions. Replaced by Källström in the 63rd minute.

Flamini: 7
Covered a longer distance (12.6 km) than any other player on the pitch, making forward runs as often as he could in the absence of Ramsey.

Cazorla: 7
Had 4 shots in total, one of which drew a fine save from Ben Foster. He wasted a glorious chance in the first half, but he looked lively. We didn't understand why he was taken off in the second half. Set up the winning goal through his perfectly-placed corner kick.

Özil: 7
Had 2 shots, one of which was on target. He created a great chance for himself through brilliant dribbling into the box, but his uncharacteristically poor finish let him down. 

Podolski: 7
Had a couple of good chances, but failed to convert them (Unlucky to hit the woodwork on one occasion). Made 3 tackles, which highlights his improved performance defensively.

Giroud: 8
Barclays' Man of the Match. For the only goal of the game, he used his physical strength to get on the right side of his marker, who was pushing and pulling all over him, and directed Santi's corner kick to the near post with a powerful header. Created 3 chances for his team-mates.


Källström: 6
Replaced Arteta in the 63rd minute.

Rosicky: 6
Came on for Cazorl in the 70th minute. We hoped that he would inject some pace and dynamism, but unfortunately he made little impact.

Vermaelen: 6
Replaced Monreal in the 80th minute. Delivered a perfectly-weighed long pass on the left flank for Poldi.