Our 4th round FA Cup tie at fortress Britannia was always going to be a stiff test, no matter what team Arsène put out. Sadly the only ones seemingly unaware of this fact were the eleven players in blue (that’s never going to sound right for the Gunners!), who spent the first half-hour of Sunday’s encounter, like frightened rabbits, caught in the intense glare of the Stoke City headlights.
At the Reebok the other week, Bolton’s close attentions only forced us to zip the ball around, at the sort of pace that the opposition couldn’t live with. Whereas on Sunday we appeared to be intimidated by Stoke’s “in yer face” intensity, with the ball becoming like a hot potato, as the Gunners all seemed to want to ‘get rid’, rather than risk being clattered.
The bods on the box suggested that Fabregas only played because Wilshere fell ill. Although Fab once again showed the sort of fervour that’s had him looking every inch the genuine article, as the Arsenal captain of late, few seemed inclined to follow our skipper’s lead.
Fabianski set the tone, with his timid failure to take responsibility and prevent Fuller scoring from Delap’s opening salvo, even before the first chorus of Delilah had reverberated around the Britannia. With Chelsea and Man Utd the only teams to succeed on Stoke’s turf this season, there’d have been no shame in this ad hoc Arsenal side losing on Sunday.
Yet this defeat left a bitter taste in the mouths of a 4,500 strong garrison of Gooners who schlepped up to the Potteries and who constituted nearly a quarter of a paltry 19k crowd. While so many Arsenal fans had made the effort to turn up, sadly, for the most part our team failed to do likewise. It was left to Denilson to crown a demoralising afternoon in downright criminal fashion, in the build up to Stoke’s second. The Brazilian’s lack of determination encapsulated a decidedly gutless Gunners display, as he just gave up on chasing down Sidibe.
Denilson looked like he was running through treacle, as he tried in vain to reel in the Stoke striker, but for him to plum give up the ghost was positively unpardonable. With Silvestre forced to forsake his post in the middle of the park in a last ditch effort to intercept the lumbering Malian, even if he had no chance of getting there, the midfielder should’ve continued breaking his neck, to try and plug the gap left by the veteran French centre-back.
If Sidibe hadn’t managed to put a precision cross on a sixpence, for Fuller to head home Stoke’s second, you never know what might’ve happened and Denilson might’ve just made it back in time to mop up the bits and pieces. But surely the lad knows you never just stop trying, least of all in the 78th minute of an FA Cup encounter. This wasn’t the first time that Traore was caught roaming up the left flank, inviting Stoke to spring a swift counter after the Gunners had gifted them possession with our slapdash passing.
I’m always caught unawares at our gaff, when the mechanical sprinklers pop up out of the pitch at half-time and gush water to maintain the slick surface that suits our flowing football. With so many passes failing to find their target on Sunday, I wondered if perhaps Tony Pullis had ordered that the grass be left uncut and unwatered to try and gain some advantage? But then it occurred to me that more than half this Arsenal side are used to playing in the reserves, on the slope at Underhill and on many other inferior surfaces, which lack the snooker-baize like consistency at our ground.
No there are no excuses for this defeat. We kid ourselves, hoping that such matches matter as much to the players, as they do to us on the terraces, but having removed my sentimental specs, in these mercenary times, the most we can hope for, is that they want it just a little more than the opposition. Evidently this wasn’t the case at the Britannia, as Stoke’s far superior hunger deservedly won the day.
Having shown so much promise playing with the kids, I’d been looking forward to Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ first-team bow. But where he’s looked imposing, appearing in every position on the park for the youngsters, he seemed far less conspicuous amidst the stout Pampas of the Potteries. Jay’s proved so versatile that his best position remains undecided. He had few opportunities to impress up front on Sunday, but having waited patiently for his big opportunity, I was disappointed he didn’t grasp the mettle and go that extra mile to put his mark on this match.
Meanwhile Theo was so inconspicuous that he might as well have not been there. Although he too saw little of the ball, it’s a mark of Walcott’s waning confidence that he didn’t come looking for it. Theo reminded me of myself as a schoolkid on those couple of instances a year when I was forced to play inter-house rugby. I bore a massive grudge about going to a posh school that played the Philistine sport instead of proper footie. On those rare occasions when I was obliged to join the egg-chasers, I was perfectly happy playing out on the wing, knowing that the quality of play between the backs was so poor that the ball would rarely ever reach me.
Sadly on this occasion Arsène’s three card Monte failed to do the trick. The introduction of Arshavin, Eduardo and Ramsey in the 68th minute was intended to inject some energy, just as Stoke were beginning to flag. But the home side didn’t oblige and judging by how reluctant Shava was to remove his Beanie hat, I reckon he would’ve been happier remaining on the bench, tucked up in his blankie!
I suppose I can only fault Sol Campbell’s much-hyped comeback for the fact that he ended up on the losing side. But with two aged, infirm centre-backs playing a rare 90 minutes, surely Wenger should’ve had the foresight to keep something in reserve, so as to ensure we weren’t stuck with Silvestre, limping out the last 20 mins. And it will rub salt in our wound if Cesc’s customarily committed performance leaves him plum tuckered for tonight’s trip to Villa Park.
I can appreciate Arsène’s need to prioritize at this crucial stage in our campaign. After two defeats in Manchester already this season, there’s some slight solace in Sunday’s loss potentially saving us from another long drive back from Lancashire, should we have lost to City in the next round. Nevertheless fatigue only becomes a factor once you begin to lose that winning momentum. Hence I’ve always been a firm advocate of putting one’s best 22 feet forward. With the Villa game the prelude to a two-week period, which will prove whether the Gunners are worthy challengers, or mere pretenders to the throne, the rotation which has resulted in the sacrifice of the second of four shots at silverware, will only be vindicated if the Wengerboys aren’t seen to be suffering from Sunday’s hangover?--
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