It’s been seven years since we fell flat our faces against Birmingham City and a return to Wembley in the League Cup final is long overdue. And a surprise; we’ve never taken the competition seriously in the twenty-odd years of Wenger’s reign and hardly blazed a trail in this year’s run to the final.
The struggles to get past lower league opposition meant each round was approached with trepidation. Would this be the home defeat which saw us potless in domestic football? Yet the defeats never came; we came, we saw, we conquered.
And then we faced Chelsea. Surely, this was the one where we were to be beaten?
No, not it wasn’t. A good result in the first leg was us still being in the tie. We did better than that, we were marginally in control of the tie. One goal would be all we needed.
Despite all our efforts to the contrary in the first 20 minutes of the second leg, we were resilient and clung on. Then took control, continuing our jinx over Conte’s men.
Now we’re here; Wembley. With the chance to win another trophy on Tottenham’s home ground. You can’t knock that, can you? I’m not knocking it; I am, however, genuinely surprised we made it this far.
And now that we have, it feels familiar.
The runaway leaders of the league, the best team in the country. Almost invincible. They don’t have an Ian Rush-like record to fall back on, but City do have the winning habit. And winning well. I find the churlishness, dismissing them as a chequebook team, is a defence mechanism for our own deficiencies. These are expensively assembled players who understand and buy into Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. Who, like Bayern and Barcelona before them, make the game look easy.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars
So we’re the underdogs. We were in the semi-final, we were in the final last year. We were in ’87. Reality check: when we’re favourites, we rarely perform well.
The question is whether Arsène can drag the performance out of the players. It seemed unlikely last April when we went into the semi-final in form which was as bad/unpredictable (*delete as appropriate). We tinkered with the formation the game before and at the Riverside, looked uncomfortable.
Yet at Wembley, we performed; thoroughly deserved victory in the end. Can we repeat that? When the chips are down, we seem capable of dredging up an unexpected performance and because City play football, the opportunity for that performance to surface is always there.
The question is whether the players believe in themselves enough to win. Forget Thursday night, surely it’s been dismissed from their minds. The XI today will be greatly changed and more accustomed to playing together.
Our success, I think, depends on which formation Arsène goes with. In the big away matches, it’s only Chelsea he has the ‘number’ of. We’ve lost the rest; been outwitted, which is the hardest aspect of it all. Yes, Wenger has contributed massively to that, keeping Lacazette on the bench is a major mistake repeated on more than one occasion.
No such mistakes this afternoon, please. Aubameyang leads the line and to repeat the success of last year, a back five. We need to cope with City’s attack but give ourselves a platform to break. Wenger doesn’t like it as a formation, but we need Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal holding together in the middle; we’re too vulnerable with a back four.
Xhaka and Elneny in the middle will see their ponderous movement play into City’s hands; we can’t afford to hamstring ourselves before kick-off.
Rub-a-Dub-Tub, Three Men in a…backline
And talking of hamstrings, it will be a surprise if Aaron Ramsey isn’t in the starting XI. Wenger seemed optimistic at his presser or as much as he could be. However, I’d be surprised if the talismanic element of the selection doesn’t come into play.
Undefeated at Wembley, scorer of the winning goal in two finals; it’s the stuff of dreams and a small psychological boost for the squad. Small, I said; if we’re pinning all our hopes on Aaron being the bogeyman, we’re in real trouble.
This is a cup final and on such things do mindsets rest.
Anyway, were it down to me, the line-up today would be:
Ospina; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Wilshere, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ramsey (Iwobi), Aubameyang, Özil
But I’d guess Arsène will go with
Ospina; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny, Xhaka; Ramsey (Iwobi), Wilshere, Özil; Aubameyang
Whichever one we go with, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t repeat Tottenham, where Aubameyang became too isolated from the rest of the XI. It’s why I think Wenger will move heaven and earth to get Ramsey fit.
It’s the final, we’ve got to have pride in ourselves, in our performance. We did 31 years ago in a similar situation, where nobody gave us a cat in hell’s chance. Seek inspiration from the famous victories before and since; believe in the impossible and we might just be alright.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.