1 – 0 Sanchez (39)
1 – 1 McCleary (55)
2 – 1 Sanchez (105)
It took time but the moment has arrived. No longer will a single word be enough when they are mentioned; it’s now Plucky Little Reading. Arsenal made hard work of beating them – as we did of Wolves, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Wigan [ but at the end of next month, they will face Aston Villa or Liverpool at Wembley and I doubt there will be four changes to that line-up.
At some point during a cup run, the underdog’s luck runs out. Plucky Little Reading’s did so in the cruellest of fashions for Adam Federici’s legs parted too wide and the ball found a relatively straightforward route through them. Humanity plummets to new depths without sympathy for him but this is football and winner takes all. I dare say Ray Clemence and David Seaman will be two who offer crumbs of comfort on how to deal with mistakes on the biggest stage. They aren’t the only two, just the first names which sprang to mind. Manuel Neuer can as well. This segment could run a while.
Arsenal worked and produced little of note. Plucky Little Reading left a few boots in longer than is considered polite in decent society and 1970s throwback referee, Martin Atkinson, showed no inclination in this in. Designed to knock Arsenal out of their stride, it was a relatively successful tactic. Not that much effort was needed; Arsenal were distinctly ordinary with none of the changes to the starting XI showing any benefit beyond Mathieu Debuchy’s match fitness. Any concerns about Eden Hazard making hay in light of Hector Bellerin’s inexperience are tempered with the knowledge of just how heavy a toll injuries have taken on Debuchy; it is hugely debatable if he plays next weekend.
It seemed so different when Alexis Sanchez gave Arsenal a deserved lead just before half-time. The moment had been coming with Plucky Little Reading pushed deeper into their half, more consistently, and relying on sporadic counters. Mesut Özil offered a £42m pass to Sanchez who underlined the gulf in individual abilities with a sidestep and calm finish in front of goals where mere mortals would have thrashed at the ball at the first opportunity. A moment of sheer class from the pair in a match which screamed for more.
That might have been the icing on the cake, of course. Federici had already saved well from Mertesacker’s angled header as Plucky Little Reading began to realise that Arsenal had woken up. Özil nearly had the umlaut’s dancing for joy with a free kick that flashed just wide of the post. A goal was coming but the nagging thought remained it might be Szczesny who picked the ball out of the net as the offside flag favoured Arsenal a couple of times, one dubiously so.
In fairness to the Pole, he dealt with the first half competently, unfussily so. Criticism of Ospina’s distribution was put in perspective as Szczesny’s proved to equally inconsistent, finding the touchline with as many clearances as he did to team mates. Initially, I put it down to concentrating on not making a mistake but I’m not sure as opportunities to clear with his ‘wrong’ foot were spurned; his confidence has suffered through being dropped.
Had Plucky Little Reading equalised in the first half, it would have been no surprise. But in the second, they had barely registered possession before the defence failed to deal with the ball, beginning with Debuchy on the right to Gibbs on the left. Szczesny went down to save the McLeary’s initial shot, his hands perfectly positioned. When the ball deflected off Gibbs’ thigh, the Pole’s reaction only clawed the ball back from well behind the line; no need for goal-line technology, it was so far over, a traffic warden offered a parking ticket if came back within the hour. Should Szczesny have done better? Easy to say yes, and very hard to shake that feeling off, to not be disappointed, but the comfort of the armchair is rarely the best place to make reactionary judgements. The easiest place to pass them though.
Plucky Little Reading really only had one genuine moment of threat after that, Pogrebnyiak was criticised for not passing in a 2 on 1 but whilst he may have been telling Mackie to BOGOF, replays suggested that the Arsenal defence had recovered in sufficient numbers for the opportunity to have been smothered irrespective of the decision made; it was always going to be wrong. Chalobah hit a shot straight at Szczesny with power and admirable technique but no real menace and that was pretty much all Plucky Little Reading offered as extra-time loomed.
Aaron Ramsey might – should – have done better with his late chance, thundering a shot against the post when the goal beckoned, even with defenders on the line. No repeat of May’s glory on this occasion; perhaps he’s saving it for this May? I’ll live in hope rather than expectation. Whilst the formation works against the likes of Liverpool, deploying the Welsh international on the right imbalanced Arsenal yesterday as he drifted inside in search of the ball. It deprived Arsenal of genuine width as the game wore on although victories continue to rack up so it seems unlikely to change.
And then Sanchez’s winner came. Having wriggled into the area, the Chilean shot more in hope than expectation and the result proved why strikers are selfish. Cruel on Federici for the afternoon? Absolutely but football clichés tell us that football is a cruel mistress and I’m sure there are few arguments with that along the Thames Valley this morning.
Arsène reflected afterwards that Plucky Little Reading had been, well, plucky and fought hard. Arsenal, he responded, would be back in May, fight harder having prepared well and do their best to win the FA Cup, to retain the trophy because they like winning things. In the meantime, he has a week to reflect on performances to work out who is in his best XI to take on self-proclaimed Champions, Chelsea. I doubt the decision was made harder by any of the four changes yesterday. We shall see.