The FA Cup has a habit of producing unlikely heroes. In this 2-1 fifth round victory over Liverpool, Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski emerged as Arsenal’s salvation.
When the teams were announced, Fabianski’s inclusion provoked consternation from some Arsenal fans. Although he is Arsenal’s nominated cup goalkeeper, some supporters openly questioned the wisdom of persisting with a player who has already announced that he intends to leave on a Bosman free at the end of this season.
Fabianski rebuffed any doubts emphatically, producing an outstanding display to keep the dangerous duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge at bay. He had to be at his very best to ensure an Arsenal victory: Liverpool had 15 attempts at goal, hitting the target seven times. However, only one effort snuck past Fabianski -- and that was from the penalty spot.
In truth, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Fabianski produce such a polished display. Although he retains a reputation for erratic decision-making and high-profile gaffes, the reality is that Fabianski has been in quietly impressive form for more than 12 months. Around a year ago, he displaced Wojciech Szczesny as Arsenal’s first-choice shot-stopper, and kept a clean sheet in the Allianz Arena. Only an unfortunately-timed injury allowed Szczesny to reclaim his first team place. Fabianski is not the calamity he once was.
Furthermore, including a player approaching the end of his contract may have been something of a masterstroke. As he begins his search for a new club, Fabianski has more motivation to impress than most. A host of suitors will surely have picked up the phone to his agent the moment the final whistle blew. On this evidence, he will make a fine No. 1 for his next club.
With Fabianski keeping things tight at one end, Arsenal opted to call upon a fresh trio of attackers to test Liverpool at the other end. Arsene Wenger brought in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski on the flanks, and gave Yaya Sanogo his full Arsenal debut at centre-forward. All three gave Liverpool’s defence problems, and played an important part in seeing the Gunners through to the next round.
Arsenal took the lead after 14 minutes. A free-kick from the left was cleared, but only as far as Mesut Ozil, who clipped a floated cross back in to the box for towards Sanogo. The athletic Frenchman brought chested the ball down and thumped a powerful volley towards goal. His effort was blocked, but rebounded perfectly in to the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who side-footed past Brad Jones and in to the net.
The goal broke the cloud of tension hanging over the Emirates Stadium. Liverpool had started the brighter, and after the 5-1 thrashing at Anfield last week, many Arsenal fans feared a reprise of that heavy defeat. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal enabled Arsenal to seize the initiative and boost their confidence.
The England international was crucial to the second goal too. Shortly after the start of the second half, he raced on to a perfectly-weighted Ozil through-ball and squared a low cross in to Lukas Podolski’s path. The ball fell on Podolski’s weaker right-foot, but the German didn’t allow that to throw him. Instead, he swept the ball assurdly beyond Jones and in to the far corner.
The way Oxlade-Chamberlain sprinted to meet Ozil’s pass was a reminder of how effective the Gunners can be when they have pace on the flanks. Since Theo Walcott’s injury, Arsenal have missed someone with the speed and desire to run beyond defenders. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s forceful display against Liverpool suggests he has the requisite attributes to fill that role between now and May.
There was still time for a nervy finish. Within 12 minutes of scoring, an over-excited Podolski unnecessarily kicked out at Luis Suarez inside the penalty area. Unsurprisingly, the Uruguayan tumbled dramatically to the ground, and a penalty was awarded. Fabianski had no chance with Steven Gerrard’s nerveless spot-kick.
In the last 20 minutes, Arsenal rode their luck a little. Howard Webb somehow declined Liverpool another penalty appeal when Oxlade-Chamberlain felled Luis Suarez just feet away from the referee. At the other end, Santi Cazorla fired over when presented with a promising chance to win the tie. The momentum was with Liverpool, and Arsenal fans feared the worst.
However, any time they did get through on goal, Fabianski was there to deny them. The Pole’s performance ensured that this was to be his and Arsenal’s night.