Four years and two days ago, we faced Chelsea in Carling Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, losing 2-1 on a late Drogba goal. That was our first season at the Emirates, and I certainly did not think we would wait four years to reach another cup final. But we did, and today was a golden opportunity to secure the first trophy of the Emirates era. Looking around the blogs the last few days, I could sense confidence, but also apprehension – which I shared.
Yes, we were certainly favored to beat Birmingham City today – but Eck’s side is a team that who made the final on merit and I knew would be there to win the cup, not just make the numbers up.
As it was, Arsene picked the strongest team available at the time – perhaps some would argue with Rosicky starting in Cesc’s place, but I understood Arsene probably wanted the former’s experience, and preferred to move Samir into a more direct support role. Cesc and Theo were clearly big losses to the team, but Birmingham had key absences as well, such as Hleb and Dann.
We lined up as Szczesny, Sagna, JD, Kos, Clichy, Jack, Song, Rosicky, Samir, Robin, and Arshavin.
Our bench consisted of Al, Gibbs, Squil, Eboue, Denilson, Chamakh, and Nik. A squad of eighteen players which, in my opinion, should have been more than enough to overcome the absence of our Captain and Theo.
Yes, Rosicky played poorly, but he was hardly the only one. I expected far, far better from the likes of Song and our central defenders. If Arsene made a mistake and I think there are arguments either way, it was probably in omitting Diaby from the squad. Yes, he was recently injured, but this was hardly a long layoff. He had an excellent performance at Newcastle, right up to his ill-advised sending off, so I think he could have played today. He was certainly more in-form than Rosicky. Being that Arsene chose Rosicky and Denilson in the squad, there was no room for Diaby. We have seen too many times that pairing Song and Denilson stifles and inhibits the midfield. So of either Rosicky or Denilson, I would have started Rosicky also.
Before I discuss how the events unfolded, allow me to offer my congratulations to Birmingham City FC. I think they handled the occasion far better than us, played better when it counted, and took their chances – in short, I call them worthy winners of this trophy. They were extremely hard done by the linesman who wrongly called Bowyer offside in the first couple of minutes, but they did not seem to let that bother them and took the lead. And when we equalized and then threatened to overrun them in the latter stages of the second half, they stayed calm, held firm and took their chance when it came. I saw no dirty play, no persistent fouling, and no “anti-football” – rather a team considered heavy underdogs who were not going to sell themselves short. There is a lesson in here for us and our players, if we are willing to heed and learn…
Birmingham started the better of the two sides, keeping the ball and moving it with confidence. Only two minutes in, we had a huge let-off when Bowyer went clean through. Szczesny brought him down as the latter tried to round him, and our keeper should have been sent off with a penalty conceded. But the linesman…err…”referee’s assistant” wrongly flagged Bowyer offside – he was clearly onside, it was not even close.
This was the kind of call that would have led me to put my fist through a wall if it went against us, so I fully understand the Birmingham players and supporters sense of injustice. They controlled the first few minutes, with Gardner producing their first shot – which went wide – shortly after the blown call. Gradually, we began to get into the game, started winning the ball and getting attacking moves going.
Arshavin created our first chance and we really should have scored from it; he forced Foster to save from 12 yards out, but it appeared he could have placed his shot a bit better. We forced a couple of corners, but couldn’t do much with them, although JD did head one over the bar.
With a quarter of an hour complete, Szczesny made his first save, collecting a shot from Fahey. Birmingham enjoyed a short spell of better possession, and worked hard in midfield to deny us space and time on the ball. Just before the half hour mark, Birmingham opened the scoring through a corner. The ball was delivered into our area at pace, Johnson headed it to a completely unmarked Zigic, who easily beat Szczesny to score for the second time against us this season. We had certainly been warned about Zigic’s aerial prowess, so letting him get so free at this set piece was poor, poor play all around.
The goal stung us into action and Robin had a chance to immediately equalize, but sent Sagna’s cross wide of the post. Ashavin then forced Foster to punch his cross away. Kos then went in hard on Bowyer, who needed a bit of treatment.
Just a minute later, Gardner put Zigic through, who could not control the ball, allowing Szczesny to smother. We should have been 2-0 down at that point. Birmingham kept the pressure on, with JD blocking Larsson’s low shot. Kos brought Bowyer down with a late challenge and was rightly booked this time.
With our side in disarray and looking certain to fall further behind, we conjured up the equalizer. Out of nowhere, Jack rattled Foster’s crossbar with a powerful shot from the edge of the area. The ball broke for Arshavin, who crossed it back into the area, where Robin converted a brilliant volley to bring us level. Unfortunately, he hurt his knee colliding – accidentally – Johnson in the move leading to the equalizer. Robin was able to continue after a short spell of treatment, and Larsson was next into the book for complaining about a free kick to Arsenal. The 45 minutes ended with Bowyer needing more treatment – there was no bad challenge on this occasion.
Right at the end of the four stoppage minutes, Samir almost scored with a swerving drive that forced Foster into a difficult save.
So we went into the break level after having been second best for much of the half. We did finish stronger and I was hoping that would give us the momentum and confidence to push on and take control of this match. As expected, no changes were made at the break.
We started the second half much better than the first, keeping the ball and creating a couple of chances. Rosicky shot wide after good work from Sagna and we forced an early corner that we couldn’t convert. Clichy became the second Arsenal player booked after bringing Fahey down, and Birmingham won a corner from the free kick, but couldn’t convert.
Just before the hour mark, they almost went ahead as Fahey struck the post from the just inside the area. We traded corners and free kicks with Birmingham for a short spell, with neither side creating any clear-cut chances. Twenty minutes from time, an injured Robin was withdrawn for Bendtner .
We then applied a sustained spell of pressure, Samir forcing Foster into a smart save, and drilling a shot off the Birmingham goalkeeper’s face from a quick break. Nik then got into the act working Foster with a strong effort from the left flank. Arsene made his second change with Chamakh replacing Arshavin.
We continued to dominate, and Samir brought the best out of Foster with another fine effort. At this point, it appeared that there would only be one winner, as we dominated the ball and were creating all the chances. Birmingham continued to hold out, and with five minutes of normal time left, Eck brought Martins on for Fahey.
With two minutes to go, Rosicky had the chance to shoot from the edge of the area, but opted for a pass to no one and what might have been a chance evaporated.
Just a few seconds later, disaster struck in our area. Szczesny and Kos both hesitated on a nothing ball into our box, with neither taking charge to clear it. It was served up to Martins on a plate, and he duly tapped it into our goal. Our young keeper and defender will be pilloried for this, but I have seen plenty of ‘keepers/defenders do similar – the difference is that on this occasion, the stakes were huge when it happened.
While the manner of the goal was hugely disappointing, Birmingham still needed to put the ball in to the net. If the positions had been reversed and we profited from a similar defensive mistake, would we give the goal back?
As painful as it was to see this moment unfold, I cannot begrudge Birmingham the goal in any way – they did what they had to do. We had four minutes of stoppage time – Birmingham even had a couple of players booked in that spell – but we were closer to going 3-1 down with Szczesny saving after Martins looked like he might have been through, than we were to equalizing again.
The final whistle went, Birmingham celebrated their cup win, and we reflected on another missed opportunity.
All I want now is for our players to come out for the next and subsequent matches determined to put this right. We lost today, the cup is headed to St Andrews – it’s done, and there is nothing we can do about it.
The big unknown will be how our players react – they were clearly shattered at the end. Previous seasons have shown our sides to be unable to shake off devastating defeats, leading to losing runs…
Our annual injury bug is belatedly hitting, with the news that Robin may be on the sidelines for a while again – so the task will be that much harder. But what choice do we have? All is not lost – we are still in three competitions and still have a chance of winning all of them. I will concede that looked highly unlikely before today, and looks even less likely now, but our players should at least give it a go.
It starts on Wednesday, with the FA Cup replay against Leyton Orient. Barry Hearn has had plenty to say – both about our side and manager – since last Sunday’s tie. How about we stuff them and shut him up? How about we take the pitch wanting to make someone pay for what happened yesterday?
I cannot remember the last time we seemed to play with an edge, where we wanted to go out and absolutely pulverize someone – and make teams afraid of us. I would not make wholesale changes for this match, either. I think some of our starters need a quick turnaround to help them get over this match.
Sunderland looms on the weekend, and then over to Camp Nou, so we are going to have to get the disappointment out of our system quickly. Arsene will decide who plays Wednesday, but for me, it is imperative that we give some starters – Szczesny and Kos among them – an opportunity to get this out of their systems quickly.
At this moment, rebuilding morale and confidence among our starters and responding immediately with a statement win are far more important that providing rest to members of our starting eleven.
At least that is how I see it…
Written by Oliver