For the third time in as many FA Cup visits to Wembley, Wenger’s team took brinkmanship to its outer realm against a side they should have dismissed with ease. As impressive as Reading’s resistance was, Arsenal should have made light work of a side whose future in the Championship is not yet secure yet once again, with the prize of silverware dangling before them, the north London club demonstrated a frailty that sets them apart from clubs who deliver sustained success.
While the Gunners were ensuring they will return to the national stadium and attempt to retain the trophy they won by beating Hull City last year, Chelsea were delivering a telling reminder why they will claim the bigger prize of the Premier League title this season.
The two teams will meet at the Emirates Stadium next Sunday with Arsenal needing to win to have any hope of overhauling Jose Mourinho’s side. Even if they are able to achieve what Manchester United failed to do at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, they would still trail by seven points with just five games remaining. The blue ribbons may as well be already tied to the trophy with Wenger’s side having once again observed from a distance that titles are won by those teams with the nous to win games come what may.
Arsenal don’t yet possess that, although Wenger can justifiably point to some promising signs that they are developing more steel. Yes, their exit from the Champions League was meek but domestically they have developed impressive momentum. And at Wembley, Alexis Sanchez once again demonstrated the value of his determined will.
Unsettled by Reading’s determined start, Sanchez appeared to have finally settled nerves with an excellent finish for his 21st goal of the season. The Championship side, though, demonstrated commendable belief and after Gareth McCleary equalised in the 54th minute – helped in part by an unconvincing attempt to block by Wojciech Szczesny – neither side could register the final, telling blow until Reading keeper Adam Federici allowed Sanchez’s shot to squirm through his legs in the first half of extra time.
Wenger admitted the scare helped nudge his side further along their learning curve. “We struggled for a while,” said Wenger. “We have learned from our hiccups, we have matured a little bit.
“We have to show that now on a consistent level, we have the opportunity to do that next Sunday [against Chelsea]. We were back against the wall and responded well. The team has great spirit and togetherness and that helps.”
Wenger was entitled to feel relief that a potentially tricky obstacle had been overcome with the added bonus that right back Mathieu Debuchy emerged with only cramp after making his first appearance in four months. The manager cites the lengthy injury list during the first half of the season as the main reason why they failed to challenge Chelsea and he can now at least look forward to the final weeks with a stronger pool of players to draw from.
The manner of defeat was particularly painful for Reading who will face Birmingham City on Wednedsday seeking the victory that will draw a line under any lingering relegation fears.
Having dropped out of the top-flight two seasons ago, the club will still benefit from around £9 million of parachute payments next season and manager Steve Clarke is keen for the cash to go into strengtheningthe squad.
“For me if you look in the dressing room you can see the quality,” said Clarke. “We can add some in the summer. I’m sure we will have a budget.”
As well as Reading performed, Federici’s mistake will be inextricably linked with their failure to reach the final. The keeper drew widespread sympathy from manager and team-mates but it make take some time before that helps dull the pain for the Australian.
“He’s been unbelievable this season for the club,” said Jem Karacan, the midfielder. “Nobody will blame him, we win together and we lose together.
can’t say a bad word against him. He gives everything he’s got, everyday in training and in every game. He’ll get his around it but we’re all gutted for him.”
READING (4-4-2): Federici 5; Gunter 6, Pearce 7, Hector 8, Obita 7; McCleary 6, Williams 7, Chalobah 7 (Cox 105, 6), Robson-Kanu 6 (Karacan 90,6); Mackie 9, Pogrebnyak 7 (Yakubu 111, 6).
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 5; Debuchy 6, Mertesacker 5 (Gabriel 63, 6), Koscielny 6, Gibbs 5; Coquelin 6 (Walcott 101, 6), Cazorla 7; Ramsey 7, Ozil 6, Sanchez 8; Welbeck 6 (Giroud 72, 6)
Referee: Martin Atkinson