Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Reading 1 Arsenal 2 (AET, FA Cup Semi-Final)

Arsenal are through to the FA Cup final for the second year in a row and a record 19th time in the history of the competition. Going into the semi-final, the north London side were odds-on favourites on the back of their scintillating form with eight league wins on the trot, while Reading were yet to win a game since they reached the semi-finals in March. At Arsenal Playa Flamenca Arsenal Supporters Club, some of us were confident that our team would comfortably dispatch the Championship outfit, while the others knew that it would be a tough game as Wigan Athletic proved in this round of the competition last season. Although we had an excellent record against the Royals when they were in the top flight of English football, including a thrilling 7-5 victory in a league cup meeting, they are a well-organised defensive unit now under Steve Clarke. Besides, you can always count on Arsenal for never doing things in the easiest way.

As we said in the last post, we knew that complacency would be a problem for this season's Arsenal team, but we were worried if Arsene Wenger could resist the temptation of giving some players valuable playing time against the lower-division side. Although the Frenchman dismissed our suspicion in his pre-match press conference, stating he would put the balance of the team first, his clear indication of the appointment of Wojciech Szczesny as a "cup keeper" left us with some concern.

As it turned out, the Frenchman made four changes from the side that started in a 1-0 defeat of Burnley 8 days ago. As he said in the pre-match press conference, Szczesny replaced David Ospina, who in turn dropped to the bench. Mathieu Debuchy made his first start in a competitive game after 3 months out, while Kieran Gibbs earned a rare start ahead of Nacho Monreal. Despite the recent fine form of 20-year-old Hector Bellerin, Debuchy is our first-choice right-back with abundant experience, while Gibbs is an able England left-back. On paper, these two full-backs should be capable of handling a championship side and these like-for-like changes looked the best way to keep all the first-team players competitive without upsetting the balance of the team. Nevertheless, we thought these were risky moves due to their lack of game time in recent months. Wenger's post-match interview revealed that he also thought it was a bit risky, but the Frenchman decided to rest Bellerin, who played recent games with some ankle problems, since Debuchy was fit and ready now. According to Wenger, the France international had cramps after normal time. We are relieved that the gamble did not backfire because we could not use a valuable substitution on another defender after Mertesacker had already been replaced due to an ankle injury. Physical fitness aside, both Debuchy and Gibbs looked rusty, especially with the lack of sharpness evident in their slow decision-making and dwelling on the ball.

Another change was Danny Welbeck leading the line in place of Olivier Giroud. The England forward scored the winning goal against Man U in the last round and knocked his former club out of the competition. On top of that, perhaps Wenger was expecting the same sort of the game to Arsenal's last outing against Burnley, in which Giroud's impact was negated by close marking on him. The remaining places on the subs' bench was occupied by Nacho Monreal, Gabriel, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, and Giroud.

It wasn't a classic performance from the Gunners, but a typical semi-final game in which mental factors played a larger part than the quality of football. The FA Cup holders started the game brightly, with Mertesacker's early effort from a corner-kick drawing a fine save from Adam Federici. As our frustration grew at Doolan's Irish Bar, six minutes from the break, Alexis' brilliance finally broke the deadlock after Mesut Özil had spotted the Chilean's clever run into the box and delivered an inch-perfect pass from 25 yards from goal.

However, Reading were level 9 minutes into the second half. Debuchy allowed Pogrebnyak to get to the byline. Santi could not stop the Russian from delivering a cross to McCleary at far post, whose run behind Gibbs was not covered. Although McCleary's volley took a slight deflection on the Arsenal left-back, Szczesny should have saved it.

Mertesacker was replaced by Gabriel, which was a big blow. We needed to save fresh pairs of legs as long as possible for possible extra time and attacking options preferably. Gabriel immediately found a chance to score with his powerful header only to be fingertip-saved over the bar. After the game, Santi Cazorla admitted that they lost organisation in the second half. Arsenal had a tough period. Arsene Wenger brought Giroud on for Welbeck with 20 minutes left. Gabriel spurned a chance as his free header flew over the bar. Ramsey found himself through on Reading's goal after his first effort was blocked and his second attempt cannoned off the post. At the other end, Pogrebnyak had only Koscielny to beat with Jamie Mackie in support, but the French centre-back made a just enough touch on the Russian's shot and the ball trickled into Szczesny's hands.

The semi-final went into extra time for the second time in two years. Football is cruel. Federici had made a number of great saves by this stage of the game. In fact, had it not been for his heroics, Arsenal would have wrapped up the game at normal time. However, all the headlines were on his mistake. Meanwhile, Alexis claimed a winning goal, with Ozil credited for another assist for the Chile international. For the remaining 15 minutes, Reading threw everything, including their third substitute in the shape of Yakubu, but Arsenal held on to book their place in the final.

It was hardly Arsenal's best performance. Their passing was not as crisp as usual. Wenger pointed out his side's lack of sharpness in the final third in his post-match analysis. Nevertheless, they still commanded 72% of possession and managed 9 shots on target despite Reading making their best to make it difficult for the Premier League side. The Wembley final against Aston Villa awaits in the merry month of May, but before that, we have to make sure we finish second in the league. Our focus shifts to this weekend's massive clash with the league leaders, Chelsea, at home.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 5
Although the Reading goal was the result of combined errors from a few Arsenal players, Szczesny should have done better. He also messed up a clearance or two. We never felt comfortable with him in goal. He may be a talented keeper, but Wenger should reconsider the Pole's status as our cup keeper before the final. 

Debuchy: 6

Played his first competitive game since he dislocated his shoulder during the match against Stoke on 11 January. Not up to the speed or intensity of competitive games. By his admission, he was not 100%. That said, with 3 tackles, 3 interceptions, 7 clearances and 5 aerial duels won, stats-based Whoscored.com rated him higher (at 7.95) than Koscielny (7.53).

Metesacker: 6
Made no tackle, 1 interception and 3 clearance in his 63-minute action. A twisted ankle forced him into an early retirement from the game, replaced by Gabriel. Wenger is not sure how long he will be sidelined, but the Frenchman admitted that it did not look too good as the BFG was limping badly.

Koscielny: 7
Made 3 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 9 clearances. Rock of our defence. Wenger praised the French centre-back by stating that he had an outstanding game.

Gibbs: 6

His first start since the QPR game on 4 March. He was caught on possession a few times, clearly looking rusty. 

Coquelin: 8
Did his job. Made 5 tackles, an impressive 9 interceptions and 2 clearances. Gave way to Theo Walcott 10 minutes into extra time.

Cazorla: 7

Pulled the strings from now familiar deep-lying position. Made 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances, 113 passes with a 91.2 % accuracy. Took over the captain's armband from an injured Mertesacker, leading the team to a victory. 

Ramsey: 7
Got into great positions on a few occasions, but failed to make it count. It's beyond us how he did not score in the dying minutes of normal time with only a defender on the line to beat after his first attempt was blocked by the keeper. This is the third game in which he was deployed as a right winger, a role that he clearly does not enjoy playing in. Thanks to pacy Bellerin and the Welshman's positional discipline in the previous games, he did well in this position, in particular against Liverpool, but this game may have been a game too many. Maybe it's time to play a specialist winger (probably, neither of Walcott nor Welbeck is happy to be labelled as a specialist winger, though) on the right flank at the expense of one of Cazorla, Ramsey or Özil.

Özil: 8
Great performance. Made 9 key passes and provided assists for both Alexis' goals with astute passes. Even made 2 tackles and 1 interception. Made more passes (114) than any other players on the pitch (with Santi closely following with 113 passes)  with a 90.4% passing success rate. His free-kicks and corner-kicks were excellent as well.

Alexis: 8

Absolutely worth the money we paid for him. His brace put us through to the final, while his first goal in an Arsenal shirt saw us qualify for the Champions League group stages. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target, as well as creating 3 chances for his team-mates. 

Welbeck: 6
Had one shot which was on target. He wasn't quite as effectual as we hoped. Replaced by Giroud in the 72nd minute.


Gabriel: 6
Replaced Mertesacker in the 63rd minute. Should have scored when he had a free header
. His mistake in the 86th minute nearly cost us a goal. Made no tackle, 2 interceptions and 12 clearances. His passing accuracy improved at 92.1. 

Giroud: 6
Came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 72nd minute. Had 4 shots, one of which was on target. He should have scored when 
Özil's pass released him behind the defence in the left-hand channel in extra time, but his effort hit the post.

Walcott: 6
Replaced Coquelin in the 101st minute as Arsenal searched for a winner. Added a new dimension to Arsenal attack by providing the width and speed, when he came on. Earned a free-kick on the edge of the box in the death of extra time.


Martin Atkins: 6
No major controversy, but he allowed too many rough challenges from Reading.

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