FA Cup quarter-final day. Arsenal’s last chance at glory and a strong XI is required with Watford likely to field the same. Arsène has been keen to stress that everyone is focussed on today, and that’s how it should be. We aren’t going to win the Champions League – we won’t even win in the Camp Nou – nor will we be crowned Premier League champions come May.
We can however win the FA Cup and looking at the likely semi-finalists – as well as those who’ve made it so far – there is no-one to be scared of, nor any particular bogey side. The future is there to be grasped.
An about-face from Arsène when you think back to half a decade or more, ago. Similar circumstances would have seen a rag-tag crew of reserves and assembled ne’er-do-wells take the field in the hope of sneaking into the latter stages, by which time the Champions League would be over for the current season and safely tucked up in next season’s bed, waiting to be told when it could get up and play again.
It didn’t work out that way but the last two years have seen the FA Cup provide respite from the burdens of the past and the travails of the present. This year is no different. No, Arsène, it is not always easy to win the FA Cup but you didn’t half make it harder for yourself by giving it a low priority, even when reaching the semi-finals offered you a glimpse of the release it could bring.
That’s the past, and we’re in the here and now. Watford, seemingly safe from the relegation battle, pose the strongest test this season so far which underlines how kind the draws have been. We’ve made hard work of it at times though but the object of the exercise is to get through to the next round and that’s been achieved. Today’s team ought to be as strong a line-up as Arsène can field with that objective in mind:
Ospina; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Chambers, Gibbs; Coquelin, Elneny; Walcott, Özil, Campbell; Giroud
It’s not going to be so clear-cut, I think. There’s praise for Alex Iwobi from the manager in today’s programme notes which makes me wonder if Özil might join Alexis on the bench and I would be surprised if Gabriel plays, even if he is fit. Injury to him or Per Mertesacker would leave Wenger short of options for the Camp Nou, if Laurent Koscielny isn’t going to make it. The answer to that one is likely to be found in today’s teamsheet.
Aaron Ramsey’s injury at Hull may well colour Wenger’s thinking about today’s match. Does he risk his ‘stars’, his key players, just when some are recovering their goalscoring form or does he rest them in a vain attempt at glory in Barcelona. It’s win or bust today with little room for sentiment.
Wenger bemoaned the pressure he finds himself under. No trophies, he recalled, brought criticism that “You don’t even win the FA Cup”, which once landed led to calls for bigger prizes. Those prizes remain as elusive as they ever did when the financial straitjacket was tied. It’s a high pressure job but one which is not under threat from above as Stan Kroenke’s admiration for Wenger made clear at a sports business symposium last week.
Whether the manager feels the same isn’t entirely clear and the weariness of the pressure seemed more pronounced in tone during the interview, as you might expect in a profession where a simple cough can lead to claims of a strain which will keep you out for a few weeks.
“I can only make sure of one thing – I am completely committed to perform and I do my best to make sure this club does well”: no-one has ever doubted his commitment to that cause, simply the manner in which he goes about it. Does he make best use of the available resources? Stan thought so, I think differently and hindsight, moments of reflection, probably leave Wenger himself thinking he might have done things another way at a particular moment in time.
But for today’s match, that is all a sideshow, a distraction. Wenger knows, as do the players, that victory is all. Losers are not remembered beyond a fleeting thought and a feeble argument years later, about what might have been. We don’t recall FA Cup exits with any fondness and this season’s competition has so far, stopped the air turning sour. Or more so, perhaps I should say.
City’s draw at Norwich yesterday helped Arsenal in the quest for a top four place at the end of the season; it’s always nice to have a buffer of at least one team between yourselves and the Europa League. That’s a thought for another day: today is FA Cup Sunday and winning is the bee-all and end-all.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.