Monday, 14 April 2014

The Curse is over!

Arsenal 1-1 Wigan

Pens      4-2

Until Saturday evening, when Santi Cazorla’s penalty sent the Gunners through to their first FA Cup final since 2005, Arsenal had appeared to be cursed when it came to playing at the new Wembley.

The old stadium saw the Gunners record historic victories under those famous twin towers, such as securing the double in 1971 and 1998 as well as that remarkable 3-2 victory over Manchester United in 1979. However, under the new Wembley landmark, the Wembley arc, Arsenal have suffered crushing 2-1 defeats to Chelsea in an FA Cup semi-final and Birmingham in the last minute of the Carling Cup final.

As had been the case three years ago, the Gunners made the short trip across North London, as heavy favourites, despite their recent horrific slump in form. The holders, Wigan on the other hand came into this game with absolutely nothing to lose and set up to hit Arsene Wenger’s side on the break. Once again Arsenal were made to rue the lack of genuine pace in their side during a somewhat frustrating first half in which the Gunners enjoyed plenty of possession but struggled to create anything of any note.

The liveliest player in red white during the early exchanges was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who sought to link up with front man Yaya Sanogo as much as possible during the opening ten minutes. In fact the Gunners could have taken the lead almost immediately had Oxlade-Chamberlain not miss-controlled a Sanogo pass on the edge of the box. The two combined again with six minutes gone, as Sanogo connected well with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross, at the near post, but could only steer his header straight at Scott Carson in the Wigan goal.

The game settled after this with Arsenal finding it extremely difficult to play the ball through midfield, resulting in the Gunners largely playing square balls along the defensive line. If a pass was played into Arteta, the ball would quickly be returned to the defence for the sequence to repeat itself once more. There was no real movement from Arsenal’s attacking players and therefore Wigan were very comfortable whilst the Gunners supporters grew more and more frustrated.

Still Wenger’s men created the better chances as mid-way through the first half, Cazorla’s corner was flicked on by Vermaelen, finding Sagna at the back post, but the Frenchman could not steer the ball home. Wigan offered little going forward, although the speedy Callumn McManaman looked to be a threat throughout, with his supreme pace enabling him to breeze past Vermaelen on several occasions.

On the hour mark, the young Englishman who had taken the FA Cup by storm with an exceptional performance in last year’s final, made another telling contribution at Wembley. McManaman picked the ball up on the right flank, following a foul on Monreal which went unpunished and raced into the box, where he drew Mertesacker into committing a foul and a penalty. Although Jordi Gomez had to wait what seemed an age before taking the spot kick, as Monreal was stretchered off, the Wigan man made no mistake to give the Championship side the lead. Arsenal’s Wembley curse appeared to have struck again.

Wenger’s response was to replace Lukas Podolski with Olivier Giroud, deploying the Frenchman up front, alongside Sanogo, in a rare chance of formation from the Arsenal manager. The Gunners responded well and poured forward as they launched
attack after attack on the Wigan goal. Oxlade-Chamberlain saw a long range effort saved by Carson, before his cross was met by Sagna at the back post, who seemed destined to score, but saw his effort come back off the post. As the clock ticked down, frustration grew amongst the Arsenal faithful and when Gibbs saw his header beat Carson, only to be cleared off the line, it seemed this would not be the Gunners day.

However, with only eight minutes left, Sanogo nodded the ball into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose shot bounced off the pitch and straight to Mertesacker at the far post. The German was completely unmarked and made amends for conceding the penalty by nodding the ball home to restore parity.

The Gunners could press home their advantage before the final whistle signalled another tense 30 minutes of extra time. It was a period in which Arsenal really should have scored a second and won the game. Sanogo just failed to connect with a low cross from Ramsey, before forcing Carson into a fine save at his near post and from the resulting corner the Frenchman fired over the bar. Then during the second period of extra-time, the tiring Oxlade-Chamberlain summoned up one last burst of energy to send an unstoppable shot crashing back off the upright. As the Wigan supporters joyously celebrated at the final whistle, while Arsenal fans tried to guess who their penalty takers would be, it seemed the Wembley curse had struck again.

Yet Lukas Fabianski had other ideas and exorcized those painful memories of defeats to Chelsea and Birmingham by saving both of Wigan’s first two penalties. Meanwhile Arteta and Kallstrom had scored from their spot kicks to given the Gunners a 2-0 lead and although Wigan didn’t miss again, Giroud and Cazorla made no mistake with their penalties to break the curse and send the Gunners to the FA Cup final.

It’s fair to say that this wasn’t a vintage Arsenal performance at all. In fact there were times when the Gunners appeared bereft of any ideas. Wigan came with a clear game plan and Arsene Wenger’s side struggled to consistently break them down. Yet cup semi-finals and finals are all about getting the result, by any means possible and that’s exactly what the Gunners did on Saturday. They could have crumbled having gone a goal down, playing in a tense atmosphere, for a manager whose future appears up in the air at the moment. But Arsenal dug deep and showed great character as they found a means to win. Roy Keane’s bitter and disparaging comments about the players’ celebrations at the end of the game only served to highlight that this man will say anything for media coverage. Yes on the face of it Arsenal have only beaten a Championship side, but having gone through a miserable few weeks, been eight minutes away from being knocked out of the competition and then coming through the nerve shattering lottery of a penalty shoot-out, did Keane expect the Gunners to simply turn around and head down the tunnel?

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