Arsenal rarely tend to do things the easy way but yesterday we just about had enough to beat defending Champions Wigan Athletic and reach the FA Cup Final, our first since we last won the competition in 2005.
Lukas Fabianski was the hero as he saved the first two Wigan penalties in the shoot out that occurred after Per Mertesacker cancelled out Jordi Gomez’s regular time penalty, as the two sides were unable to be separated in 120 minutes of football at Wembley Stadium.
Arsene Wenger kept to his principle of starting Fabianski in goal in the competition over Wojciech Szczesny, and also raised a few eyebrows as Yaya Sanogo started up front ahead of Olivier Giroud. There were also starting births for Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a Gunners side still plagued by injuries and suspensions.
But we were quick out of the blocks at the start of the game with Sanogo almost immediately proving his selection was just, as his header off Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross forced a good stop from Wigan ‘keeper Scott Carson.
Arsenal enjoyed plenty of early possession but Wigan was defending in numbers and made it difficult for us to break them down. Bacary Sagna saw a half volley at the back post fly wide off a Santi Cazorla corner before Wigan started to create more in their final third with a Gomez cross just skimming the crossbar before Callum McManaman fired one over from a tight angle.
As we headed towards half time, Lukas Podolski saw a free kick from 25 yards out curl wide and Sanogo had another good chance as Podolski put him through on goal, but after a heavy first touch he allowed Carson to close the angle and keep him out.
Into the second half and the game continued without much change, Arsenal enjoying large amounts of possession but struggling to make anything count with Wigan keeping themselves tight at the back and in the game.
The holder’s patience was rewarded just before the hour mark, as McManaman cut into the area and was brought down by Mertesacker, prompting referee Michael Oliver to point at the spot. The game took a pause as Nacho Monreal was treated for a nasty looking injury he received in the build up resulting in him being stretchered off, with Kieran Gibbs coming on in his place, before Jordi Gomez eventually stepped up and converted past Fabianski.
The onus was now all on Arsenal to find a route back into the game, but our struggles in the final third continued and Sanogo flicked a Ramsey cross harmlessly over the bar. Giroud then came on for Podolski, a decision meeting by a chorus of boos from the large Arsenal contingency inside Wembley that felt more directed at Wenger than the German, but it was hardly a substitution that could be criticised given the ineffective impact Podolski had had on the game thus far.
Arsenal continued to press as time went on. Oxlade-Chamberlain tested Carson with a shot from range before Sagna hit the post with a header off a Cazorla cross. Sanogo then flicked on for Gibbs, whose header was saved by Carson but still on route towards the goal but Stephan Crainey cleared it off the line.
Our pressure eventually told from the resulting corner, as the ball came out to Oxlade-Chamberlain outside of the area and his scuffed shot into the ground bounced up for Mertesacker to head home at the far post. A just reward for our dominance since going behind and it was game on.
Giroud saw a low shot saved by Carson but we couldn’t find a winner during regular time, so into extra time we went. It looked as if Wigan’s legs were fading and with Arsenal in the ascendency, it felt more a case of “when” rather than “if” we’d get the all-important second goal.
But that didn’t come, however not due to a lack of opportunities. Nick Powell fired one over the bar from Wigan before Ramsey had a shot blocked. The Welshman was again involved as he crossed for Sanogo, but the youngster couldn’t get anything on the ball to divert it goalwards.
Sanogo was again involved with a testing shot at Carson, who pushed it over the bar well, and the Frenchman then fired one over the bar with a shot on the turn inside the area.
Into the second half of extra time and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s thundering effort cannoned back off the bar with Carson beaten, but with legs tiring on both sides chances became less frequent.
Kim Kallstrom came on for a knackered Ramsey and a late shot dragged wide by Powell for Wigan represented the last real chance of the 120 minutes of football, and into the shootout we went to decide who would be the first team into the FA Cup Final next month.
From here, Fabianski took over and superbly saved Wigan’s first two penalties off Caldwell and Collison as Arteta and Kallstrom converted with Arsenal’s efforts to put us into a 2-0 lead. McArthur and Beausejour did find the net for Wigan but that was all in vein, as Giroud scored too and the stage was set for Cazorla to win the game, of which he made no mistake.
This prompted much criticised celebrations from Arsenal players, staff and fans alike as we celebrated a hard fought win over a side no one had managed to beat in the previous two years of the competition. And it ensured we were back at Wembley on May 17th for the FA Cup Final and a chance to end the run of nine years without a trophy.
Let’s be honest, it wasn’t much of a game and it was an incredibly nervy affair, one that the pressure was entirely on us. It was clear that we were a side struggling for form and whilst it would have obviously been far more enjoyable to watch a full strength Arsenal put Wigan to the sword, that’s the type of scenario we know we are unlikely to enjoy till the end of the season and in my eyes, even though it was painful to watch for the most part, a scrappy win on an occasion like yesterday will do me fine.
There were signs on improvement though. Arteta had his most accomplished display for some time and I have to hold my hand up after saying he looked finished after the Everton game last week, he was superb in the holding midfield role and regularly cleaned up and cut out imposing danger before it reached our back four. Yes it was only against Championship side Wigan, but you can only play against what’s in front of you. And Arteta was excellent.
The positivity in the side mainly centred around Oxlade-Chamberlain, who worked his arse off all game and was clearly blowing by around half time in extra time. He was the source of the majority of our chances, the early Sanogo chance, the Mertesacker goal, and was unlucky not to score when he rattled the bar in extra time.
We’re a side that’s been lacking pace and inspiration, and Alex offers just that. With Ramsey now back providing the box-to-box role again (please God keep Aaron fit till the end of the season – I worry that the 113 minutes he played might have further damaged him but it seems he might be OK), The Ox can focus on being the heartbeat of the team moving forward. He can take confidence from his display yesterday and will be vital for us in the run in.
Got to say, I was impressed with young Sanogo too. At times I was left thinking, “what are you doing”, but on reflection and after watching the game again he was doing almost everything right, it was only his finishing that let him down. That’ll come with time and experience; maybe a short loan would be good for him next season if we bring in a world class striker and have Giroud as a backup.
But I liked what I saw; he made some good runs, showed pace and connected well with the midfielders behind him. He got a bit of a negative critique on twitter after the game, which I thought was harsh. It’s not his fault he’s in the position he’s in, and regularly training and playing with the other guys in the team will only aid his development. Give him time and I’m sure he’ll prove to be a valuable player for the Club.
Big credit to Fabianski too, who again showed his qualities in goal with an accomplished display in the shootout. Credit must also go to our penalty takers. There’s a common myth that penalty shootouts are a lottery, when in fact they’re just a test of nerve and ability. Can you complete one of football’s most basic tasks when the pressure is at an all time high? Fortunately for us, our four players that stepped up did just that, whereas the first two Wigan players faltered. Well done to our boys for keeping their heads and to Fabianski for his work between the sticks.
It means we have another day out at Wembley to look forward to on May 17th where we’ll now know we will be playing Steve Bruce’s Hull City.
But before then there’s an awful lot of football still to be played and a lot to play for as we enter the final month of Premier League football. Everton leapfrogged us in the League yesterday with a win at Sunderland, so although finishing in the Top Four is now technically out of our hands, I think if we can win all of our remaining games we should be OK as Everton has the harder run in with both Manchester clubs still to play against.
We get Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny back soon too, which will be timely for us to sure up our defence and provide more attacking options. Whether they’re back in time for Tuesday I don’t know, but Wenger will no doubt update us tomorrow in his press conference.
I worry that after 120 minutes of football yesterday with an already depleted squad we’ll be carrying plenty of tired legs when we host West Ham on Tuesday night, but it’s a game we can’t afford to drop points in.
The onus is on the players to use Saturday’s win as a confidence boost to get through the remainder on the season. A lot rides on it and there’s no further room for error on our side.