Sunday, 27 February 2011

Arsene's Blues - When will the Gunners wait for a trophy end?

Perhaps the statistic most commonly trumpeted by supporters and journalists concerns Arsenal, and the six years in which the north London outfit has failed to triumph in any competition. Arsene Wenger had a golden opportunity to end this streak and silence their critics at Wembley yesterday, facing a Birmingham City side entirely unexpected to reach the final and widely condemned as simply a 'sideshow' alongside the 'main event', and cannon fodder, appropriately, for the Gunners. In the event luck was on the side of the Blues, who won their first major trophy since 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Western world was preparing to meet a young group of Liverpool lads called The Beatles, and John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

The combination of little and large won it for City, giant Nikola Zigic heading them in front just inside the half hour mark, the Serbian striker's height making it impossible for the Arsenal defenders, and vindicating manager Alex McLeish's decision to start him. Arsenal fired a few warning shots at the Birmingham defence, superbly marshalled by the excellent Stephen Carr, who led from the front throughout the match, but failed to net an immediate reply. They did level inside fifteen minutes, however, Robin van Persie netting an exquisite equaliser on the turn, after Jack Wilshere's stinging effort had smashed off the crossbar, and Birmingham had failed to clear. With the teams level at half-time, and City naturally reeling from the disappointment of going behind, Arsenal were always going to be the favourites in the second period.

Indeed it transpired as such, the Gunners providing a stiff test of City goalkeeper Ben Foster's ability, but he was more than equal to the challenge. Roger Johnson was a rock at the heart of the Birmingham defence, whilst the substitution of a clearly disappointed Craig Gardner for Chile international Jean Beausejour tipped the midfield balance slightly, and gave the Blues a different attacking dimension for the final half an hour. Few would have imagined the identity of the hero - on-loan attacker Obafemi Martins - but he was another inspired change by McLeish, tormenting Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djorou with his incessant pace and willingness to battle for every ball. His time came in the 89th minute, Zigic's header provoking a catastrophic mix-up between Koscielny and the formerly reliable 'keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who appeared not to call for the ball. The two practically collided, leaving Martins with the simplest finish of his entire career, and undoubtedly the most important goal he has ever scored.

The timing of the strike was crucial as it gave Arsenal no real time to get back into the game, despite a succession of long balls aimed at substitute Nicolas Bendtner as the Gunners abandoned their cautious, elegant build-up in favour of a direct style rarely employed by Wenger's players. The reaction of the thousands of devastated Arsenal fans as the minutes of added time slipped away summed up the day, and the ramifications of this defeat for Arsenal. From anticipating an easy victory against apparently 'lesser' opponents, the Gunners had conspired to essentially hand victory to Birmingham, and throw away the best chance they will have in any competition this season to end the most unwanted record in top-flight football. This ought not to take anything away from Birmingham, however, who battled superbly, admittedly rode their luck, but went for the victory against a technically superior side. The reaction of Alex McLeish and his players showed the extent of Birmingham's achievement - becoming the first team outside of the Premier League 'top six' to win the Carling Cup since Middlesbrough in 2004 - and their joy was well-deserved. McLeish's substitutions were inspired, and although it is presumptuous, the manner in which the Blues approached the second half having suffered the deflating blow of conceding a goal five minutes before the break, suggests that his team talk was particularly inspirational, vital at such a crucial time.

Going back to Arsenal, it may be suggested this defeat could take a quite a long time to recover from. With fans having been dreaming of an unprecedented quadruple, taking for granted victory in yesterday's game, they now face an extremely difficult trip to the Nou Camp, the task of chasing down an imperious Manchester United in the Premier League, and a number of FA Cup games to ensure their second trip to Wembley this season. Whilst it would be foolish to suggest that Arsene Wenger ought to be subject to speculation as to his future at The Emirates, some serious questions will need to be asked, particularly about the manner in which Arsenal approached this game, and Wenger's policy towards young players, much maligned in the past few years. In terms of the Carling Cup itself, today's match was a vindication of the format, and a triumph for excitement, tension and surprise, the core tenets of a relevant and enthralling cup competition. It might be said that English football needed a result like this. Having been served up uninspiring ties for the past few years in the 'showpiece' domestic cup finals, today's story was the sort of fairy-tale supporters up and down the country can appreciate, and long may the Carling Cup enjoy its Indian Summer, and transformation from irrelevant distraction to bastion of unpredictability, upsets and controversy.

Photos courtesy of (in order): The Guardian, Getty, AFP and Reuters

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