As Terry Neill’s reign entered its prime, illusions of title challenges were swept aside with four cup finals in three seasons. Cup specialists is the appropriate footballing tag. It might be so this season as well; congratulations to Arsenal Ladies who reached their cup final. Now it’s just down to the second leg of the FA Youth Cup semi-final.
The first team meanwhile, has little time to rest and recuperate before the visit of West Ham for the re-arranged Premier League match. Arsène’s press conference today could be little more than a roll-call for the walking wounded – and a few of them are struggling to walk, judging by the post-match medical reports. Of the XI who started in Saturday’s semi-final it seems Ramsey suffered from tightened muscles and recognised it himself, signalling to the bench to be replaced a couple of time whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain has reportedly aggravated a groin strain and whilst Mikel Arteta’s hair remained impeccably intact, the same cannot be said of his calf.
He does have options of course. Those who emerged from the bench on Saturday will surely start, as will some of those who didn’t. It seems logical not to expose Bacary Sagna to the potential of strains and niggles, no matter how consistent he has been this season. Carl Jenkinson can surely cover for one game whilst Kim Kallström can offer an alternative to Arteta or Ramsey if required. The XI is going to be a mix and match though and the biggest question has to be, who sanctioned tomorrow’s match taking place 48 hours after the semi-final where the club and manager knew the potential existed for extra-time and penalties? Wenger has repeatedly criticised the fixture list for punishing his players, an argument which now has even less force given the club’s culpability in the issue.
It is different from the rescheduling of the visit to Hull at the weekend. That, quite simply, is football paying the price for making broadcasters pay the price. Sky’s decision to move the match to Sunday to suit Chelsea has, of course, got nothing to do with favouring Mourinho, it is simply a case of economics; they know that if Chelsea make the final, there is going to be a higher audience reach than if Atletico Madrid win the tie. They have done everything to help their bottom line and if a club benefits in the process, it is a happy by-product. The Premier League are happy too; Peter Scudamore has already admitted the ‘brand’ suffers if Manchester United do not make it to Europe this season, a reason they will be happy to see Tottenham fall by the wayside during the run-in.
For supporters, particularly those who have bought tickets and booked train fares, you now realise your place in proceedings; an inconvenience to the game. I am sure Arsenal are making careful plans to announce their response to co-ordinate the reimbursement of those costs on Sky’s behalf. Of course, if they aren’t, one way to make the broadcaster pay, is to cancel your subscriptions. The problem is that you sense this will be a regular feature of coming years unless something is done to combat it now. Even then, will Sky care? The money they earn from subscriptions is nothing compared to the advertising revenues they can garner when an English team reaches a European final. I’m told that I should support an English team doing well in Europe but football doesn’t work like that. I have never wished any of them well, it’s part of the rivalry in football and I’m unable to switch from dislike on a Saturday to benevolence midweek to flicking the switch back to its default position once that particular match has ended. Yes, I am aware of the character flaw that exposes.
But West Ham visit tomorrow night and Arsène has to find a combination of XI to start the match; he can worry about the bench later. Prior to Saturday, he mentioned that Laurent Koscielny might be fit for this fixture but that carried the health warning of, “at the earliest“. The same was attached to Mesut Özil’s return at the weekend, a significant proviso to add for a manager who is optimistic for the most part, about his player’s health. The usual warnings about how badly the club manage injuries came from the usual sources, with a particular Dutchman so annoyed he took to Twitter to find a home for his theories. Questions remain about why he is not hired by Arsenal if he has all the answers…
Mentally, the players will be fine. Lukas Podolski is unhappy at being substituted at Wembley at the usual time but far from being a problem, that is the reaction we should want from a player. One who sulks is likely to be more disruptive than one who prepared to admit his frustration; it shows the desire to do well individually and as a team, particularly with the language used. Podolski spoke of the remainder of the Premier League campaign; it is a case of chasing fourth. Compared to previous seasons, Arsenal have a bigger problem; Everton, the prey, are in better form than Tottenham and whilst they have tougher fixtures during the run-in, Arsenal’s own form is the wrong side of poor. The requirement to win every one of their remaining five matches is a tall order for a team which has won two of the last nine during normal time.
The third win in that sequence was by penalties and whilst winning in that manner is still a victory, it was the composure during the penalty shootout which gives a better indication of the players mental strength than anything else. A high pressure situation and they responded with an almost contradictory reaction to the one where they collapsed at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, where they wilted at Goodison Park. The last chance saloon brought out the best in those taking the spot kicks and they were helped immensely by the platform Lukasz Fabianski provided with two saves. Mikel Arteta scoring further relieved the pressure on those who followed; rather than chasing the total of their opponents, Arsenal were the ones exerting pressure.
But reaching the FA Cup final has to be pushed to one side. Podolski’s hyperbole over not reaching the Champions League next season may be a way for the media to tap into a populist vein but in missing out on a key target, it will force the club to reassess its planned investments in the summer. Every cloud has a silver lining and so forth but for that silver lining not to merge into the grey, decisive action will be required. It would be nice if fourth was achieved and investment made to strengthen the squad but is there a danger that achieving the minimum and then adding the FA Cup will obscure that vision?
It’s all a month away or so in any case. To be honest, the footballing cliché of taking it one game at a time has never been more appropriate. Any suppositions collapse if Arsenal don’t win tomorrow night. The marketing spiel is set out already: it’s a must-win match…