It seemed as if there were some noticeable similarities as I watched the Scousers suffer the ignominy of their semi-final cup exit on Sunday. Strangely, much like the Gunners, it felt as if Liverpool were playing with "the handbrake on" and having taken the lead, it seemed as if they also suffered from the fact that they started the second half on the back foot and then struggled to pick up any real momentum, after Villa managed to turn the game on its head.
I sat here with my head on a swivel, trying to keep abreast of events at Wembley, St James Park and a thrilling Ferrari/Mercedes dice-up in the Grand Prix, but I was soon gripped by the coverage of the second semi-final, when suddenly it looked as if there was a genuine possibility of an unexpected result and the pleasant surprise of us playing Villa in the final in May.
All due credit to Tim Sherwood, for whatever it is that the 'gileted one' has done to drag the likes of Benteke up out of the mire of the striker's recent malaise, to return to his former goal-scoring form. But truth be told, as much as I savoured Villa's victory and the fact that we no longer need fear the spectre of Stevie Gerrard enjoying a worthy, silverware-laden swansong at Wembley next month, based on the form of the two teams in Sunday's display, it might actually be argued that Aston Villa will prove more awkward opposition than Liverpool! Especially when one considers that aside from losing their injured centre-half, this was a Villa side deprived of regular first choice players such as Agbonlahor and Sanchez.
Nevertheless, one would assume that even with their best XI, they should be no match for the Gunners, so long as we turn up in a more energised manner on the day than our somewhat lethargic incarnation on Saturday.
Meanwhile, with the climax to the football season drawing ever closer, I find myself casting ever more frequent glances at the Championship table, musing over the potential awaydays we might be enjoying in the future. From a strictly geographical point of view, my personal preference for a dream ticket of promoted teams would be Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich (or their East Anglian "mates" Ipswich).
After a midweek outing to Brighton, I must admit that a seaside awayday to the South Coast next season sounds most appealing, especially when contrasted with an arduous schlep to the North East. If the likes of Middlesborough are destined to interject upon this trio of minimal awayday miles, then I suppose this wouldn't be so bad, if they end up replacing Sunderland. Doubtless the Wearsiders might have something to say about this and it will also be disappointing if QPR get relegated because aside from Loftus Road feeling almost like a home game, it's one of the few remaining venues with a proper, old-fashioned atmosphere. However recent events have only added to the sense that the patently hearty team-spirit at Leicester and Burnley makes both teams, in my humble opinion, the most deserving candidates for Premiership survival.
Nuff waffle! Can't wait for Chelsea next weekend. Bring it on!
'Oop For The Cup
I'm relieved we weren't playing Villa on Saturday and when Aaron Ramsey hit the post in the dying throes against Reading, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Gooner wondering if it might be destined not to be our day. With my terrace tranny tuned into Chelsea beating Man Utd at the Bridge, I had a nightmare vision of our assault on the FA Cup petering out in extra-time and our season suddenly being brought to an impromptu conclusion, with my hands covering my eyes, watching through the cracks in my fingers as Reading progressed to the final in an agonizing penalty shoot-out.
With their side’s campaign rapidly fading towards its customary insignificance, I pictured my Spurs mates gleefully wringing every last drop of pleasure, from the unexpected solace of the Schadenfreude of our shock semi-final demise. But then I’d been fretting all week about the way in which everyone was talking as if our return for the final in May was already a foregone conclusion. Especially after the foreboding omen of Martin Keown’s kid scoring the winning goal, as Reading’s unknown U21 side beat a Gunners’ team including the illustrious likes of Wilshere, Diaby and Gnabry last Monday night.
All such fears seemed well founded, as we endured a nervy ninety minutes, waiting for our far superior quality to tell against the comparatively toothless Royals. But with us having recently looked as if the penny has finally dropped and that “Project Wenger (Mark 8!)” has eventually managed to mature into a multi-faceted, more efficient outfit, sadly on Saturday, Alexis Sanchez aside, it was back to our most dementing ways of old, as we ponderously waited for the relentless waves of bodies Reading got behind the ball, to be mesmerized by our sideways passing, into parting like the waters of the Red Sea.
Although I must admit that I was no less guilty of my mind not being fully focused on the job at hand. Unlike Reading on their big day out, our club may have been sufficiently blasé about the 10th FA Cup semi-final of Arsène’s tenure that they didn’t bother organising for 30,000 t-shirts to be laid out on the seats at our end of the stadium. Additionally, while I appreciate that it’s an economic necessity for the national stadium to pay its way, I’m amongst those traditionalists who feel that Wembley should be solely reserved for the final. Nevertheless, this doesn’t detract from the fact that marching up Wembley Way with the Red Army, in glorious Spring sunshine will always be a memorable highlight of any season.
As a result, I was so caught up capturing the obligatory Wembley “selfies” as I soaked up the atmosphere around the stadium that I only just made it to my seat as the combatants took to the stage, without having given a thought to Wenger’s team selection. I was shocked to discover our best goal scorer had been left on the bench and it wasn’t until some minutes into the match that it dawned on me that Debuchy was out there, playing in his first competitive match in three months.
Although it was Kieran Gibbs on the opposite flank who perhaps proved to be our weakest link but neither full-back provided the necessary width, or the energy to stretch the opposition. With Reading spending the majority of the match camped in their own half, Steve Clarke’s surprising 4-4-2 wasn’t anywhere near as ambitious as it sounded. Considering they were arriving at Wembley not exactly bristling with confidence, I expected to see Reading overrun in the middle of the park. Alexis apart, we were devoid of the verve required to expose inevitable chinks in the Royals’ doughty armour.
Watching a recording of the game on the box later that night, I was flabbergasted to hear Danny Mills comment that Cazorla was perhaps our best player on the day, as I felt that Santi had taken such a backseat that I forgot he was out there for most of the match! It wasn't until Giroud made his far more muscular entrance late on, that we really began to expose the limitations of our lower league opponents. Even then, there was a palpable sense of relief seeing Reading's strikers “bottle it” when 'two on one' right at the death.
On another afternoon, our habitual failure to go for the jugular after taking the lead could’ve proved fatal. We were so lethargic at the start of the second half that I worried we might not be able to grind up through the gears, after Reading breathed the life back into this contest with their equalizer. At least this meant that the Royals' fans got their money’s worth and with Alexis eventually ensuring that I was able to rejoice to my Spurs mates that the result was “never in doubt”, mercifully I could afford such magnanimity.
At least Chelsea’s win has taken the wind out of Van Gaal’s sails and will finally extinguish the media’s efforts to ramp up foolish title tease delusions any further. Hopefully this will leave us solely focused on the primary objective of overcoming our psychological inferiority next Sunday, with the sort of convincing victory that will serve the Gobby One with notice of the long overdue restoration of the “only one team in London” balance of power. What's more I fancy that with Stevie Gerrard denied a Wembley swansong, we've a far better chance of retaining the FA Cup.--
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