We are on our way to Wembley for the League Cup final, our first final since the inaugural 2006-7 Emirates season. As pleased as I am, I am probably more relieved at than anything else at this moment. Despite dominating from virtually the off, we labored and made heavy work. At the hour mark, I started to seriously think Ipswich would make the first leg goal stand up and we would be left wondering what might have been. Fortunately, Bendtner finally made the breakthrough a minute later, and Ipswich’s resolve collapsed. Two more goals and 30 minutes later, it was job done, as our team successfully overturned a first-leg 1-0 deficit to win 3-1 aggregate.
Much of the talk in the hours leading up to the match was regarding who Arsene would name in the starting eleven. We knew to expect changes, as he had all but said there would be some rotation, hinting that Robin would be rested. In the end there were three changes: Denilson, Bendtner and Arshavin all starting, in place of Song, Samir and Theo. When I first saw the lineup, I was not particularly thrilled – the stakes were much, much higher than most recent matches, with a Cup final on the line, and I felt that our strongest available team should at least start the match in hopes of overturning the 1-0 first leg deficit early. A healthy early lead would perhaps allow second half changes, giving some of the starters the benefit of an early night’s work. If mass changes really needed to be made, I think the Sunday FA Cup Fourth Round tie versus Huddersfield Town would be the match to do it. But, as it is not my decision, we just had to hope for the best. And, not for the first time, events showed just why it shouldn’t be my decision…
So our starting eleven lined up as Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou, Sagna, Jack, Denilson, Cesc, Bendtner, Robin, and Arshavin. On paper, still a formidable squad, but with lingering questions about the form of a few of these players. Ipswich, as expected, set up to defend. Almost immediately, Leadbitter tried to chip Szczesny, but sent the ball over the top. We built slowly, and gradually started to get a head of steam. Our first shot came roughly five minutes in, but Robin put the ball wide.
The first incident came on 10 minutes, where Cesc went down in the area after contact by McAuley – slight contact which looked embellished. Not a penalty from what I saw, but probably should have been a yellow for our Captain instead. But Halsey – who I thought did a poor overall job handling this match – did nothing. Just a couple of minutes later, Szczesny and Sagna collided while trying to get to McAuley’s header (which went over the top). The former was able to continue after a couple of minutes treatment, but the latter was not, so Arsene was forced into a very early substitution, with Eboue coming on.
We resumed where we left off, and patiently built – unlike the tie at Portman Road, we took shots on goal, both Cesc and Robin trying their luck and forcing Fulop to save. In quick succession, Robin hit the bar with a header, and then Cesc was clearly taken down as he moved into the box. The Ipswich players went in hard and often on our Captain, undoubtedly wanting to introduce him to rugby tackling. No bookings were issued, but Cesc kept with the task at hand. The final fifteen minutes of the half feature more patient Arsenal buildup, stout Ipswich defending, a few shots (all taken by us), and no goal. 45 minutes down, still no Arsenal goals, and 45 minutes left to prevent Ipswich from knocking us out at this next-to-last hurdle.
No changes were made at the half – not that I expected any. We worked hard, created some chances, but were unable to unlock Ipswich’s defense. At halftime, it looked to me as though Robin needed someone else up front with him, either Theo or Samir, but no change was forthcoming. Ipswich started the second half brightly, winning a corner almost immediately. O’Dea then fired across the face of our goal. We regained control after about five minutes, and we forced a couple of corners, which came to nothing.
An hour gone, and just as it seemed as though we would never score, Bendtner came to our rescue with a quite brilliant goal. Jack sent a wonderful ball long down the left to Bendtner. He instantly controlled the ball with his right foot, swept it inside Edwards with his left, and made space for a low shot into Fulop’s right hand corner – FINALLY!! Exactly sixty minutes and seven seconds elapsed when the ball nestled in the net. Cue celebrations and palpable relief around the Ems. Jewell made a change on 63 minutes, sending an attacker (Scotland) on for an attacker (Priskin, who scored Ipswich’s first leg goal). It didn’t matter – Ipswich’s resistance was broken by Bendtner’s goal – much as the Eto’o goal broke ours in Paris, 2006.
Just over a minute later, we took control of the tie. Arshavin sent an excellent curling corner in from the left, Koscielny meeting it just ahead of Fulop with a firm header into the left corner of the net. This put us 2-1 up on aggregate and in control of the tie. To Ipswich’s credit, they came out of their shell, forcing a corner of Djourou, which came to naught. Then Scotland had a sniff of goal, but fired straight at Szczesny. With sixteen minutes remaining, Jewell made his final chance, bringing O’Connor on for Healy.
Just before that final change, we witnessed another strange moment from Halsey – as Cesc started a move towards the Ipswich goal, Halsey called him back and ordered a drop ball. Cesc was clearly irritated, but responded in the best possible way, killing the tie off with 13 minutes remaining. Denilson played a fine pass to Cesc, who took it across the halfway line, picked out Arshavin’s overlapping run on the left. Arshavin cut inside, bringing the defender with him, then turned back outside, and fed Cesc, who nutmegged Fulop to finish the tie. Our Captain immediately ran over to our bench, jumped into Song’s arms, celebrating with him, Samir and Theo, as the players now knew we were in the final.
Barely a minute later, Jack almost made it four, bringing the ball into the area, but losing it before he could get a shot away. Arsene brought Samir and Theo on for Robin and Arshavin with six minutes to go. What little sting Ipswich had was long since drawn, and we held out comfortably. There was a couple of minutes break for a pitch invader, Halsey blew his whistle after 92 minutes and change, and we were in the Carling Cup final.
As cup semi-finals go, these two legs were quite difficult and due credit must go to Ipswich Town. In the first leg, they clearly outplayed us and had a chance to make it 2-0, which would have made our task this evening that much more difficult. Even with only the solitary goal, they defended resolutely and proved a tough nut to crack – it took a very special goal for us to finally break through. If they erred anywhere tonight, it was probably not putting enough pressure on us to defend; protecting a slender lead is always a difficult ask, particularly against a side with an array of attacking options. But if they had managed to get an away goal – especially if it was before we scored – who knows what would have happened. As it was, we defended very well as a team and coped comfortably with whatever they threw at us.
Credit must also go to our much-maligned trio of Bendtner, Arshavin and Denilson. I was not happy they started the match, and at halftime, I thought their presence in the lineup was contributed to the areas we struggled in, as none of them played well in my view. But in the second half, they all improved significantly and each contributed to the victory. For Bendtner and Arshavin, here is hoping the goal and assists spark both of them into a run of consistent good form. Both of them have the ability to take off from here – we absolutely need them to find a rich vein of form – we have a lot of important matches coming up, and will need them to score and create goals, whether as starters or off the bench. As we have seen throughout this season, the opportunities are there. Denilson started the move leading to Cesc’s goal and I have always considered him as someone who can create more than he does. Hopefully his part in the third goal will be the first of many.
Allow me to add a quick word of praise for Comrade Eboue as well. Standing in for the suspended Sagna in the first leg, he had a torrid time, and his struggles seemed to affect the rest of the defence. Tonight, Sagna’s injury (which hopefully is not too serious and will hopefully see him back for the Everton match) forced him on after only 15 minutes. This time, however, Eboue defended well and helped out on the attack.
Finally, a well done to Arsene, who took a big gamble, resting three key players in Song, Samir and Theo. All three deputies vindicated this decision, contributing to our win, while allowing rest for the aforementioned first teamers; each of the second teamers got valuable minutes to maintain sharpness, and each contributed to (or scored) at least one goal, and all hopefully received a confidence boost. He stuck with Bendtner and Arshavin far longer than I would have, and it paid off as one of them had a hand in all three of our goals. Everything I would have done, he did not do – and events proved his decisions completely correct.
Tomorrow at St. Andrews, we will find out who our opponents will be. West Ham lead 2-1 from the first leg, but Brum have an away goal and home turf. We have played both these sides twice in the league already, and are 4-0 in these matches, scoring 9 goals, and conceding only one. In a one-off cup final, that probably will not be so relevant…Nevertheless, we will start heavy favorites against either of those sides.
It was tense and nervous for much of the time, but we got there in the end. As Arsenal supporters, would we have it any other way? We have seen how crashing out of cups has had a knock-on effect on the players, inducing slumps over the course of a handful of games. Now it is time for us to see how winning a Cup affects the players, how it instills the confidence that they can go all the way.
Our time is here, our time is now…
Written by Oliver