Ah, Arsenal. There are few teams who divide and create opinion in the land quite as much as Arsenal. Hugely talented, massively inconsistent and incredibly frustrating. If there was ever a game to best represent the Arsenal football club of recent years, Sunday’s FA cup match away at Brighton must be close to top of the list.
The match began quite spectacularly for the Gunners. A splendid run down the line from Calum Chambers followed by a cut back to the returning Theo Walcott, who in turn slotted it away with ease after just 89 seconds. Walcott has somewhat struggled since his return from a lengthy injury, with chances being squandered against both Hull and Stoke but this looked like the Walcott of old. Slotting the ball early with the outside of his right foot into the far corner took not just Brighton keeper David Stockdale by surprise but most inside the Amex. If Walcott’s goal was good the next half hour was as close to a perfect away performance as you are likely to see in this year’s FA cup. Some of Arsenal’s football was sensational.
Mesut Özil, so often the scapegoat for fans and critics alike was dropping deep, strolling and caressing the ball from side to side. At one point Robbie Savage, the less said about him the better, claimed it was “Tiki Taka like”. Without question though the star of the show was the evergreen Tomáš Rosický who was sprinting around the pitch like a man of 24 not 34. When it came, the second goal was a thing of beauty. After some measured build up play, Rosický burst onto the ball before playing a sublime reverse ball through the eye of the needle, into Özil, which Xavi himself would have been proud of. The German steadied himself before calmly slotting past Stockdale.
In a true Jekyll and Hyde performance the second half began disastrously. Some poor play from Chambers and the much maligned Mathieu Flamini allowed Chris O’Grady to slot home. The cup tie was now back on, surely not another upset was on the cards? When Arsenal needed inspiration who else but Rosický stepped up. 9 minutes after conceding Rosický pounced on a loose ball beating two Brighton defenders on the edge of the box. A no look pass, which Phil Neville bizarrely took exception to, found Giroud who chipped the ball back to Rosický who in turn lashed the ball in from the edge of the box. Game set and match. But wait this is Arsenal, things are never this easy. After a gaping hole appeared in the centre of the Arsenal team, Sam Baldock raced through to deftly chip over the helpless Szczesny.
On came the big players for Arsenal, Alexis and Francis Coquelin, who closed out the remaining minutes. Who could possibly have imagined that a player sent out to Charlton on loan a matter of months ago would emerge into such a key player> In the past seasons the need for this almost mythical defensive midfielder who would solve all of Arsenals problems has been ever-present and has been shouted from rooftops across the country. Perhaps finally in Coquelin that player has been found. Sunday’s game could and should have been far, far more resounding. In truth Brighton scoring two goals somewhat flattered them but in a weekend of massive shocks the win was far more important. With Arsenal now joint favourites for the cup could the Gunners have found a taste for silverware?
On the surface of things Arsenal are very well equipped for a strong finish to the season. With many key players such as Ramsey, Koscielny, Walcott and Özil now fully fit, the Arsenal squad looks stronger than ever. The youngsters who have deputized such as Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin have performed well and with the impending arrival of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal, Arsenal are well set to make a charge. Realistically though what should Arsenal be aiming for in these remaining months?
The Premier League looks almost certainly to be heading to Chelsea’s trophy cabinet. Simply Chelsea and Man City are too far ahead in terms of both points and squad sizes for Arsenal to mount a challenge. Whilst stranger things have happened, see Kevin Keegan, third looks like the best bet for Arsenal. An inconsistent but albeit a winning Man United team certainly looks vulnerable and the match at Old Trafford in the second last game of the season could very well be a decider.
Southampton have performed quite brilliantly and have taken the league by storm. Their strong, resolute defensive structure added with their clinical front line has been a huge success, perhaps best shown by their away win against Man United. However, you can’t help but feel that they may just slip away from the top 4. Whilst it may seem harsh, their lack of experience at this level of the league may just be their undoing and perhaps 5th is where they will likely finish.
The FA cup is clearly Arsenal’s best chance of silverware this season. With 4 of the top 6 out of the competition and Arsenal having won the trophy last season you have to fancy their chances of going far into the competition. A home draw against high flying Middlesbrough will be testing but you have to expect the Gunners to pull through and from then on anything can happen.
Finally we have the Champion’s League. A tournament which has given Arsenal fans so many years of hurt and remains the one trophy for Monsieur Wenger to win. Perhaps this year they can finally at least challenge towards the later stages of the competition. A favourable draw against the organised but uninspired Monaco side presents Le Professeur against his former side in what on paper seems a winnable tie. Should Arsenal progress they have shown in recent years their capabilities when it comes to beating the big teams such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona whether they can fulfil their potential remains to be seen.
In all likelihood Arsenal can’t go to the latter stages of both competitions as well as maintaining the pace in the Premier League. I would suggest most Arsenal fans would settle for a third place finish in the league with at least a semi-final in one of the cups and this looks like the most likely finish for the Gunners this season.
by Ross Carr