Matchday. When all the talk of the previous week is put its proper place and context; it’s just talk. Tonight is about delivering on those words.
The FA Cup Quarter-Final stage. The last eight. The prize? A trip to Wembley which is just so wrong. You can argue that staging the semi-finals there enables more fans to see the match. It does but so would reducing the number of tickets dished out to sponsors, suits and assorted liggers.
Does holding the two semi-finals in the national stadium impinge on the glamour of the final? It does, in my view, but no more than ticket prices and ridiculous kick-off times.
Which is brings us nicely back to this evening. I like watching Arsenal at any time of the week but 8pm on a Monday night, knowing that there was a perfectly good slot left unused yesterday? It’s broadcasting gone mad as far as football is concerned, the television companies ruling the roost by a step too far.
Former players, the great and the good, they all talk about how the glamour of the FA Cup must be restored but the spineless negotiating of the Football Association lets them down and adds a layer of rust to a once great tournament.
And then you go and win it, making it a great tournament once more…
Arsenal head to Manchester tonight, turning up at Old Trafford for an 8pm kick-off at the behest of the BBC. No coincidence, I’m sure, that the majority of Auntie’s staff for this occasion work in Salford and will be tucked up a lot earlier than the hardy souls making their way south on the motorway network.
Old Trafford, the self-proclaimed Theatre of Dreams; it’s been a nightmare for Arsenal in the last decade with an abysmal record of one draw and nine defeats in their last ten visits. It’s been a decade since our last win there, a well-deserved three points earned by Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal.
But you knew that already, it’s been mentioned enough in the media since Wednesday’s win at Loftus Road. The victors, it’s claimed, will be handed a big boost over their rivals in the race for the top four places. I’m not sure it will be psychological in the sense of superiority between the two but confidence? There’s no doubt that going into a tough run of fixtures, United would gain some impetus.
Arsenal meanwhile still retain a sense of fragility, that each defeat in a big match weighs heavy with the impact lingering. Crucially, the two setbacks in the past month or so have seen wins in subsequent games even if the performances have been far from convincing. It isn’t the mental strength attributed to champions or challengers for that matter but for this season, it will have to do.
If you look at the two sides, Arsenal go into the match slight favourites in terms of abilities. The problem comes with organisation. Van Gaal will organise his side well, that is one of his strengths but they can be vulnerable at home with disciplined performances – Southampton proved that in January.
Neither side is anywhere near displaying the consistent quality of their prime when they held sway over the English game. Defeat this evening offers Arsenal the typically early end to interest in the end-of-season honours and it’s a feeling United are getting used to following Ferguson’s retirement.
A sense of being hard done by emerged in Arsène’s press conference last week. The injustice of the home defeat to United in November rang through but Arsenal were wasteful in front of goal and didn’t defend diligently enough. Hit on the counter, they were suitably punished. If that injustice sparks greater concentration, effort and accuracy tonight, they won’t be hollow words.
That’s the key to not being knocked out. Ideally Arsenal will win tonight but a draw is nowhere near the issue that many believe. Let’s face it, we will have plenty of free mid-weeks after the second leg of the Champions League clash with Monaco.
Thankfully, Arsène has pledged to field a strong side, avoiding the farcical weakened line-ups of yesteryear. Last season underlined the impact of putting out as close to the first choice XI as possible. With injuries striking, the choices are more limited.
The back four and goalkeeper pretty much pick themselves. Nacho Monreal might find himself back into the starting line-up. Arsène’s biggest choice is midfield; Aaron Ramsey or Santi Cazorla alongside Francis Coquelin. It’s a no-brainer if the Welshman is fit; Cazorla has done well enough in the home matches against lesser sides but Monaco proved that we need more defensive energy in the position.
The question then becomes who makes way from the attacking line-up? The evening seems set for the work rate of Alexis and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If that is the criteria, Danny Welbeck’s inclusion makes sense, particularly with the added spice of a homecoming to throw into the mix. However, the downside is that this trio lends itself to a direct, counter-attacking style which whilst not devoid of flair, is less inventive than normal.
It leaves the line-up as:
Perhaps that is what we need. Quick breaks from the back of hardworking defence. Over-elaboration has cost us dearly in this fixture before and United will be set to break up play. The reality is that Arsène will fit both Özil and Cazorla into the line-up, most likely at the expense of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck.
As with the last three Premier League meetings between the two sides, it’s a match Arsenal are eminently capable of winning such is United’s fall from grace. As those three meetings proved, we can be as far away as ever from doing so. And yet, I think it’s a match we will win.
Let’s hope that feeling in the stomach is right and not a sign of a medical problem.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
From The Vaults
12th March 1906. No Highbury, the club had yet to move to their spiritual home and Woolwich Arsenal was still the proper form of address. No Old Trafford either, Manchester United were equidistant from dropping Newton Heath to building their home.
This though, was the first meeting between the two sides in the FA Cup. Neither side had reached the final with the winner facing the prospect of their first semi-final.
United were second in the Second Division, a position they would finish the season in following a run of one defeat in sixteen matches. Arsenal were seventeenth in Division One, just two points above the relegation places. A similarly strong run saw them move into the comfort of mid-table, ending the season in eleventh, yet again the highest finish achieved by a London side in the Football League.
OK, so they were the only London side in the Football League but that’s just nit-picking. Arsenal went on to lose to Newcastle United in the semi-final, who suffered defeat at the hands of Everton at Crystal Palace in the final.
United would have to wait another forty-five years to defeat Arsenal in the FA Cup.