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Sunday 29 January 2017

Underdog Day Afternoon

            From the large swathes of empty seats at Selhurst Park for Palace's glamorous date with Guardiola's City on Saturday, evident in the TV pictures seen later that night, one might concur with those who contend that the allure of the FA Cup is on the wane. 

            In fact, after a couple of utterly miserable recent outings to St. Mary's, I myself was intending to blow out Saturday's trip to Southampton. With me feeling somewhat under the weather, it seemed far more sensible to stop indoors, in the warm, than to schlep to the South coast and risk pneumonia in the brass monkey weather. 

            Yet less than five minutes into watching Derby v Leicester on the telly on Friday night, I'd already caught the fourth round bug and decided that barring not being able to drag myself out of my pit on Saturday morning, there was absolutely no way I was going to risk the possibility of missing out on being present to witness live, not only our own slice of cup drama, but with the increased allocation of visiting fans, what invariably proves to be one of the most atmospheric awayday outings.

            Far from disrespecting world football's oldest knockout tournament, personally I believe that the fact that managers of the clubs from the upper echelons feel obliged to avail themselves of squad players, in order to avoid the risk of burn out for some of their established stars, this has only revitalised the competition, by restoring a genuine threat of dramatic giant-killings.

            With Liverpool's recent run of dreadful results, the Scousers humbling by Wolves in Saturday's midday KO wasn't such a shock, but it kind of set the tone for an underdog deluge that afternoon. I don't think any of us expected the Chairboys to have the slightest hope of pulling the rug out from under Spurs at White Hart Lane. Parking up at St. Mary's just as the three o'clock matches were approaching half-time, no one in the car took me seriously when I told them that Wycombe were two goals to the good.

            So we walked to the nearest boozer to savour all the second half drama on the multiple screens, amidst the jovial atmosphere of a pub packed with nearly as many Gooners as there were Saints' fans. Despite Wycombe's valiant efforts, in a display that, at the very least, was thoroughly deserving of the fiscal windfall of a replay, it was a visceral gutter when our ten-man neighbours conjured up a "get outta jail' card, eleven seconds after the allotted six minutes of injury time.

            With Lincoln putting on a suitable giant-killing show for the Beeb's cameras, at the Seagulls' expense and Oxford embarrassing the Toon, we weren't short of a cup upset or two. Yet after revelling in Tottenham's tribulations, only for them to squeak into the last sixteen, I spent the short walk back to St. Mary's fretting about this worrying omen. 

            I can barely recall seeing Martina play again, ever since he scored that screamer against us last season and while Saints' fans tried to reassure us that this would be a guaranteed walkover, against their severely weakened starting XI, with memories of our miserable South coast defeats still relatively raw, I certainly wasn't anticipating quite such a comfortable afternoon's entertainment.

            I expected Southampton to be stoked after their impressive midweek triumph at Anfield and the home fans to be suitably pumped, upon achieving their first final in fourteen years (since losing to us in Cardiff in 2003). Perhaps the surprisingly subdued atmosphere amongst the locals was due to the fact that the travelling Gooners occupied the majority of the North stand behind the goal, but as a result we spent much of the first-half taunting them with the enquiry "is this the Emirates?"

            Despite having always been such a fervent advocate for selecting one's best starting XI and getting the game won first and foremost, before resting players, the recent trend for rotating the squad in cup competitions, with Wenger usually opting for a mix of youth and experience, ensures that these encounters offer a rare opportunity to appraise the progress of the likes of Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles and Holding, in a proper competitive environment.

            However, despite the fact that the Saints have accomplished such a successful production line of talent in recent times, their latest crop of youngsters appeared to show the Gunners far too much respect, in what proved to be a surprisingly one-sided affair. Nevertheless, as they say, you can only beat the team in front of you and with Arsène watching on from the stands, beginning the first of his four-match touchline ban, le Boss must've been chuffed with the impressive display of his teenage midfield pairing.

            I always adore watching Reine-Adelaide play. Much like Thierry Henry, the French youngster bestrides the pitch with a panther-like grace. Yet as with all his young team mates, Jeff has bulked up and the formerly gangly lad now looks far more built, with the physique to be able to hold his own in the middle of the park.

            Maitland-Niles is nothing but muscle and appeared to relish the increased responsibility, looking far more at home in the middle of the park, than the rare occasion when he's featured out on the right. Doubtless Granit Xhaka was preoccupied, rubbing Factor 10 into Mesut Özil's back on some beach in the Caribbean, but Granit could do worse than to study Ainsley's dominant midfield display as a lesson in how his job should be done!

            Theo might've come away with the match ball, after his hat-trick, but aside from stabbing home the three goals, which were pretty much served up on a plate for him, I can barely recall Walcott having any other involvement in the game. It was "Dat guy Welbz" who deservedly earned most of the glory, with his slick, intuitive interchanges with Lucas Peres.

            Watching from the other end of the pitch, I thought Danny had fluffed the shot for his first goal and didn't think the second had enough legs to get over the line, without it being scrabbled away by the Saints defender. Fortunately I was back home just in time to watch Match of the Day, where I discovered that both of Welbeck's goals were wonderfully composed finishes and cause for much optimism, as this is just the sort of clinical end product that's eluded Welbeck in the past, as the one missing ingredient that might well make Danny the complete striker.

            When given a rare opportunity, Shane Long was his customarily persistent, irritant self, but from our hosts, Sims was about the only player to offer any real threat and on the odd occasion when he was asked to defend, captain for the day, Kieran Gibbs made a disappointing hash of things.

            With Steve Bould usually shackled to the bench, it was interesting to see Bouldie, barking instructions from the touchline, unfettered by Arsène's enforced absence. And as the travelling faithful went from the classic refrain of "he's got no hair, but we don't care", to a relentless rendition of "Stevie Bould's yellow army", I found my binoculars drawn to our manager, easy to spot in the director's box, alongside "old faithful", Boro Primorac in their grey outfits. Not that I was expecting them to be joining in the celebrations, but I couldn't help but wonder what Wenger was making of the adulation of his lieutenant and how quick we were to show Bouldie the sort of love that our leader rarely hears nowadays.

            Meanwhile, it's great to be in the hat for Monday's fifth round draw in such convincing style, able to sit back and enjoy, as hopefully others endure the jitters in some of Sunday's remaining matches. What's more, with their entire season on the fritz, hopefully Klopp's suitably chastened Scousers will be doubly determined to salvage some pride, by getting something out of Tuesday's encounter with Chelsea. Who knows, with a bit of luck and another emphatic win against Watford, we might end up travelling across London to Stamford Bridge next weekend, brim full of confidence, with the wind in our sails and everything to play for?


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Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Good man Bern! Great to see your dedication so handsomely rewarded ⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️

Bern said...

Cheers Shane. I really would've been sick as a parrot, if I'd wimped out on that one