The daggers which seem to permanently hover just behind Arsene Wenger’s back, and which inched even closer following the disrespectful and disgraceful comments made by Jose Mourinho, should now be sheathed; Arsenal’s season is very much alive.
When you consider Wenger has spent 18 years in north London, years that have included some of the greatest in the club’s history, it seems astonishing that he has had to spend so much time over the last 18 months justifying his decisions and defending his selections.
There was a moment here too — half an hour before kick-off against Liverpool — when his critics stirred in the shadows and smelled another opportunity for attack; Wenger had just made seven changes from the team that drew 0-0 against Manchester United, opening himself up to accusations that he was denigrating the FA Cup and damaging his team’s best opportunity of ending a nine-year wait for a trophy.
With Olivier Giroud, Wojciech Szczesny and Jack Wilshere left out there were quickly murmurs of discontent on internet message boards, ill-formed comments from pundits suggesting Arsenal had thrown away any chance of victory; and much crowing from rival fans delighted by the prospect. Had it all gone wrong you can imagine the headlines: The man who specialises in failure does it again.
But it didn’t go wrong; and Wenger answered his critics by putting out a team that gave everything for the cause in a pulsating cup tie that not only rescued Arsenal’s season but also went a long way to rescuing the reputation of the FA Cup, which has taken even more of a battering than Arsene recently.
Looking at the number of chances created by Liverpool — together with a strange decision by referee Howard Webb not to award Luis Suarez a clear penalty in the second half — it would be easy to say Arsenal were lucky; but an analysis of the performances of players Wenger brought in for this match would indicate not everything was down to fortune.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, chosen ahead of Santi Cazorla, was man of the match as he scored one goal and made another for Lukas Podolski, the player picked instead of Tomasz Rosicky, for instance; and goalkeeper Lukas Fabianski was unfortunate not to lift the award himself following a string of excellent saves, in particular three magnificent stops from Daniel Sturridge.
The full-backs, Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal, worked tirelessly to counter the threat of the excellent Raheem Sterling, while Yaya Sanogo — controversially chosen ahead of both Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner, set up the opening goal and provided much needed muscle in a highly promising display.
Mathieu Flamini’s return from suspension, too, gave Arsenal protection and determination in midfield as the home side produced an energetic, battling performance that had the Emirates faithful far more animated than they have been for many, many months. It’s worth noting, too, that Wenger’s decision to stick with Mesut Ozil despite some harsh criticism from almost all media outlets for the German’s performance during a 5-1 defeat at Anfield, has also reaped dividends; he was much improved against United and even better against Liverpool, adding energy and determination to his unquestioned skill.
But it was the sheer desire of Arsenal’s display, both in attack and more often in defence against a Liverpool forward line that once again looked irresistible, that made this a classic cup tie as the play surged from one end of the field to the other at a pace that made it impossible for the spectators to find time to breathe.
If the FA Cup no longer matters — and some have suggested so after both Swansea and Southampton played weakened sides this weekend and were consequently knocked out tamely — you would never have guessed it from watching this tie; and you would never have believed, either, that Wenger — whatever Mourinho may say — is a man not sufficiently motivated by success.
The FA Cup was the last piece of silverware won by Arsenal, of course, way back in 2005 when they beat Manchester United on penalties; and it looks an excellent route this year too with Everton next at home followed by a potential semi-final at Wembley — which means the Gunners could lift the famous trophy without even leaving London.
Next up is Bayern Munich, and Wednesday’s Champions League match comes with less pressure — it’s a tie few people give Arsenal a chance of winning over two legs — so perhaps with fans on a high and players visibly boosted, Wenger now has a chance to look forward to a thrilling finale to the season without a sense of dread and with the pressure temporarily eased.
At the very least, given this result and given everything he has done for Arsenal, he should be able to face the future without a sense that everyone is hiding in the shadows waiting for him to fail; and Jose, that includes you.
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