Saturday, matchday, FA Cup quarter-final day or one of them anyway. That the matches are spread through the weekend highlights the war on footballing culture that broadcasters have and continue to wage. War On Culture, by coincidence, is this morning’s playlist, here or in the right sidebar.
Everton arrive in town for the FA Cup quarter-final, a stage of the competition only reached twice in the nine years since Patrick Vieira scored the winning penalty in Cardiff. Given the frequency with which the two sides have met in the League through the decades, it is somewhat surprising to discover that this is only the fourth time they have been drawn together, the first since Everton won at Goodison Park in 1981 ending Arsenal’s hopes of a fourth consecutive appearance in the final. If I recall correctly, Kenny Sansom netted an own goal in his first FA Cup outing for the club. By coincidence, Arsenal returned to Goodison a week later and won the First Division match.
Ahead of the match, Arsène’s biggest concern is Laurent Koscielny. That is not to say he isn’t worried about the absence of Jack Wilshere, simply that the midfielder is definitely out. Koscielny is doubtful, a further scan will be carried out before deciding on whether or not the defender plays. The risk for Wenger is that the French international plays and aggravates his hamstring causing him to miss a crucial period in the Premier League. For today, I wouldn’t take the risk; Thomas Vermaelen is a decent back-up and fit once more; the Belgian is more than capable of deputising against Everton and Bayern. We talk of rotation and Koscielny’s absence may be more keenly felt in the upcoming matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and City.
Future matches or the immediacy of the trip to Munich, will not impact on team selection according to the manager. Had the team been riding on the crest of a wave, it may have been a different matter but last weekend’s defeat in Stoke resulted from an abject performance. There were many who were out-of-sorts on that afternoon and they need to erase the match from their minds. As tempting as it must be hard for Arsène to accept but the Champions League is almost gone and as such there can be few complaints if the line-up in Bavaria is the one which might normally have been considered a domestic cup XI with the likes of Sanogo and Podolski leading the attack.
Wenger spoke about the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup and the fond memories he has of the competition. Asked about the diminution of the cup’s reputation by the prioritising of a top four finish, Arsène contradicted the stance assumed by many in similar arguments,
I don’t think it needs to conflict with the Premier League – you can finish in the top four in the league and win the FA Cup. It can conflict with the Champions League programme sometimes, that’s true, but overall it’s still something special in my mind.
So a top four finish and cup glory are not mutually exclusive. How novel. Of course finishing in the Champions League places is important financially and the competition helps to attract the best players to the club. When we actually get our negotiating hats on and complete deals, that is. I wonder how long before that shine begins to dim and fade? Arsenal have come close to winning the trophy just once and whilst the record of continually qualifying for the tournament is remarkable, reaching the knockout phase to routinely fail lessens the appeal. We are told that playing the likes of Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid, these are the glory nights. Only when you win them is the omitted proviso and let’s be honest, it misses out that there is a lot of dross to be endured in between. Arguably, Arsenal have a better chance of winning the FA Cup so should that take precedence over the Champions League when they clash?
Injuries force the manager’s hand sometimes but the answer is to have a stronger squad to cope with the challenges and that situation is something Arsenal are moving toward. And today, the priorities are reversed. Home defeat to Bayern has all but killed the faint hopes of European glory; domestic stars are shining brighter and the FA Cup has been a useful stepping stone to clubs as they progress to the top of the table in the following seasons. It is I guess, a winning habit which is maintained or used as a stepping stone to League success. For that reason, I hope Arsène eschews his habits of previous years – previous rounds this season even – and fields his strongest XI:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
The likelihood is that Fabianski will start, Jenkinson too with possibly Gnabry, Podolski and Sanogo. Wenger committed to picking a team which will win today not his strongest XI. That is the fundamental problem he has to wrestle with in himself; he rates the Champions League more highly and it needs the pragmatic streak to overrule his heart in this instance. The reality is that the FA Cup remains Arsenal’s best chance of silverware this season.
Everton played well when they visited The Emirates in December and deserved their point. Arsenal were certainly below par for much of the match although one might argue that it was the visitors brightness which exacerbated the initial laxity in their hosts performance. Whatever the reason, it is something Arsenal will need to be wary of and alert to. The slow starts were thought to have disappeared but last weekend was a slow start, middle and end so perhaps the problem isn’t quite as solved as we believed. More than anything, for their own sakes, a good performance and win is essential for the rest of the domestic season. Going into a run of difficult Premier League fixtures with two good results (a win and draw?) from this week’s matches would boost confidence and belief for the rest of the month, crucial in ensuring what has shaped to be the best season in years, does not dissolve into the usual struggle for fourth.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.