TERRACE TALK: Reaction from the weekend's top FA Cup action

Doubters begin to have faith restored

Arsenal

There wasn’t a lot of optimism in the air prior to kick-off yesterday, especially after the cup draw had proffered our guests the additional motivation of a potential Merseyside derby in the sixth round. In fact, I’d fully prepared myself for writing a miserable, doom and gloom-filled report, fearing for the couple of successive defeats which might have left our season looking completely in tatters come this Thursday morning.

Yet after Suarez and Co. had sliced and diced our defence twice in the opening five minutes without adding the finishing touches that came so easily during out mauling at Anfield perhaps it should have dawned on me that this was destined to be our day.

Whether it was the chance to redeem themselves after last weekend’s embarrassment or their appreciation of quite what a pivotal encounter this might prove to be in terms of the mood in the camp and our psychological well-being in advance of Wednesday’s clash with what many will regard as the best team on the planet, you only had to see all the fist-pumping and heart-thumping going on as the players savoured their well-deserved ovation at the final whistle to appreciate that they were no less euphoric about the result than the rest of us.

If you compare the calibre of the teams left in the FA Cup with the cream of European football that’s still involved in the Champions League, it could be argued that as the eternal pragmatist, Arsene Wenger should actually be selecting our best 11 for the domestic competition and leaving anyone in need of a breather on the bench against Bayern because it is patently obvious which way lies the easiest route to ending our trophy drought.

But then Wenger wouldn’t dream of pitting his wits against Guardiola with one arm tied behind his back and if he hadn’t rested Olivier Giroud against Liverpool, we wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to witness the apparent transformation in Yaya Sanogo, who suddenly looks like an entirely different creature to the timid rabbit caught in the glare of British football’s frenetic headlights in his extremely brief early season cameo.

Although there was a whisper about the possibility of Wenger selecting the French striker, having not seen hide nor hare of Sanogo since August, it was no less of a surprise to see him thrown into the fray instead of Bendtner, for what might well have proven to be a massive make or break moment in his fledgling Arsenal career.

Yet I for one was delighted Bendtner wasn’t even included on the bench, since to my mind the Dane’s prima-donna attitude stinks and I’d much prefer to see him quarantined off from the rest of the squad, unable to infect others with the poison of his apparent disaffection.

Considering it’s not exactly been a common occurrence in recent years, I was gutted that the Gunners failed to make the most of our midweek opportunity to kick Man United while Moyes’ side are quite so down, while following the humiliating assault on our confidence at Anfield, I was terrified at the prospect of containing Liverpool’s rampant front line with a weakened team.

I was just walking through the turnstile when I heard news on my radio of Kevin Doyle scoring again for QPR. But while Gooners everywhere have been baying for blood because of what appeared to be a blatant failure to offer our emaciated squad the psychological boost of bringing in some more (fit) bodies, perhaps by pulling Sanogo from his sleeve at this precise point in time we’ve just discovered how our manager has continued to maintain his equanimity, while all about him have been questioning his sanity.

Up until 4pm yesterday I too was pondering whether it was feasible for this Arsenal squad to continue fighting on all three fronts, whereas following 90 glorious minutes of fabulously entertaining FA Cup football, suddenly anything is possible once again!

Liverpool

Webb’s abominable decision stole it from us

All the chatter about Mourinho abruptly stopped, and all the invective about Howard Webb began.

It was a relief, albeit briefly, to concentrate on football after a weekend dominated by mind games.

“It’s getting stupid now”, said the man who called us chihuahuas.

According to Wiki, they “don’t always get along with other breeds and tend to be clannish” – what you implying, Brendan lad? Say that to my face, you Irish git etc.

Since the Spesh is now pecking at us as well as Wenger we were supposed to be half flattered, half outraged. Actually, most just shrugged and admitted he had a point. Squads are all very well but there’s always a temptation to rotate whether necessary or not. Even in a time of squad strength (well, for everyone else maybe) continuity still counts for a lot.

As if to prove it – because Mourinho can never, ever be wrong surely? – Chelsea dropped points to the same Anichebe I said would slither back to obscurity, while we had another Great Escape at Craven Cottage. Even my Terrace Talk colleague was getting Twitter jitters in West London. Calm down dear, it’s only Fulham! The last-minute win gave us the same buzz of inflated expectation we had when Benayoun scored five years ago. That ended up swiftly punctured by United showing some Houdini tricks of their own, the narrow escapes they’d patented over two decades. In 2014, perhaps City’s casual swatting of Chelsea was another cold shower on our title wet-dreams.

It’s nice to get giddy occasionally though amidst the ‘de rigour’ doom and rationality. The cup may be perceived as a giant distraction from what many Reds really want, but not in this ol’ house. Other memories of late victory, Kuyt against United or Carroll against Everton, were resonant enough to re-stir the blood and stiffen the sinews anew.

There will be no “it’s for the best, let’s focus on the league now” cop-out nonsense here. How threadbare is your attention span if a few extra knockout games obliterate it? We’re not Wigan for God’s sake.

I’m devastated right now, not just because of the exit but of the crooked manner of it. That was stolen from us by an abominable decision. He’d already bottled it over Suarez at Stamford Bridge, but this was more blatant still. It’s becoming nigh-on impossible to keep the politics out of it now; what else could it be? The refusal to send off Gerrard for a blatant second yellow was guilt-ridden cowardice.

And for those who’d previously felt sorry for Wenger? “I have seen the incident and will have to look again. Maybe, maybe not” — Monsieur Magoo is back, when it suits. He’s no better than Mourinho sometimes.

Arsenal were admittedly a much tougher proposition than last week, assisted greatly by being clinical in front of goal, but would that have been the case if Sturridge poached one of his early chances or Webb had properly punished a nasty challenge by Monreal (who kept on fouling regardless)? Podolski got away with a couple of naughty ones too. By the time he flew in on Suarez, South Yorkshire’s finest couldn’t look the other way forever.

But one penalty’s all you’ll ever get, despite the nakedly obvious nature of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s challenge. Before that Sturridge squandered another decent chance. It’s hard to criticise someone who almost scored for the ninth consecutive match, but these are the tightest of margins at the top.

When cooler heads prevail we’ll again ponder how many matches a team can win after conceding two goals. We’ll concede this was more like the real Arsenal. We’ll worry about Suarez’s mini goal drought and wonder if he needs resting. We’ll salute a brave performance that proves we’re back amongst the elite.

I’m not sure when this particular head will cool down though, if ever. We were undone by the same referee, ignoring another cast-iron penalty against the same player.

We’ve not heard the end of this.

Chelsea

Terry’s absence costing us

A lot troubles me about our performance and result at West Brom and our loss to City.

Top of that list is how we are still, after so long, so reliant on John Terry. Without him on the pitch, we lack leadership, focus and, most of all, discipline. Last Tuesday the period immediately following Ivanovic losing the plot resulted in us losing all three points. It should have been a throw-in to us, was given to the Baggies and Branislav went absolutely mental! He was thunderous with rage, raining expletives down on the referee and the linesman. Attempts by captain Petr Cech to calm him down proved fruitless. Cahill too failed to calm the Serb who, even after he was booked, continued his foul-mouthed tirade against the assistant referee and was lucky not to get sent off.

Our defence fell apart after that and it was evident West Brom were going to score.

Terry would not have allowed that to continue and would have also ensured focus until the job was done.

Things were perhaps not so black and white against City. That said, there was a similar incident where Luiz had a set-to with the officials and once again it led to a breakdown in discipline and concentration.

However, Jose needs to take his share of the blame. The starting line up surprised me to put it mildly. Matic and Mikel? That was always going to make us slow and ponderous against a side who are usually quick and attacking. I continue to be puzzled by this insistence on playing Azpilacuerta at left-back when we have Ashley Cole. As well as the Spaniard has done, with Terry’s absence wouldn’t it have been better to put Cahill with Ivanovic in the middle and played the two full-backs in their traditional positions? I just don’t understand Jose’s thinking on this one.

In his pre-match briefing on Friday, Mourinho was not in good mood form. The air crackled with the dark vibes emanating from him. He didn’t want to be there. He seemed to be trying to pick a fight with the journalists. I was half expecting him to walk out. Usually such shenanigans, along with the comments about Wenger, are part of a ploy to draw attention away from the team and on to himself following a poor performance but this time there seemed to be a real malevolence there.

This mood continued in the City post-match interview and, although he was honest, he seemed to stop short of actually giving any clear explanations regarding the poor performance. The truth of the matter was that we didn’t even turn up. Jose said that in the league the best team wins and in Saturday’s game the best team also won. But that’s not true. City didn’t have to be the best, anything better than awful would have beaten us, and that is worrying.

I would have always taken the six points over a cup win but we have had two poor performances in the space of a week at such a crucial stage of the season, which is making me nervous with a decent Everton team to face next.

Jose needs to demonstrate some of those famous motivational skills quickly and we also need to identify a captain to step up when the team need it on the pitch. For all of Cech’s skills and intelligence, he is not that man. Either Cahill or Luiz would be my choice although I’m not so sure the Brazilian will be with us next season. For European sides the captain doesn’t seem to be such an important role and it’s usually given to the team’s most senior player but it is evident that we need that disciplinarian on the pitch.

The lack of an out-and-out scoring striker also becomes more evident game by game but the good news is that the Cavani rumours have resurfaced again. I can see this one happening. Jose likes big, powerful strikers and such a significant buy would explain our lack of activity in the January window. As for this season, I don’t know what to think. Could Torres finally come good just in time to help us secure the title? Come on, you have to admire my persistent refusal to give up on him!

All the horses are neck and neck coming up for the final straight. Place your bets. My money is still on that little white horse.


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