West Ham United 1 - 2 Arsenal
Hammers and Gunners add cup of cheer
January 3, 2010
Those who have penned obituaries for the grandest cup competition of them all may have to revise their opinions after a day of FA Cup action that will live long in the memory.
Third round day in this competition used to be one of the most eagerly anticipated occasions in the English football calendar, but the last decade of FA Cup anti-climax has done little to banish the notion that this is now very much a runners-up prize for the true giants of the English game. Aside from Portsmouth's improbable triumph in 2008, this competition has become the back-up prize for powerful teams who have used it to claim consolation at the end of seasons when they have failed to achieve their chief targets and the first clutch of third round games did little to silence the prophets of FA Cup doom. Without an upset of note on the first Saturday of 2010, FA Cup romantics were struggling to offer conclusive evidence that the fading reputation of the game's most famous knock-out contest was about to be salvaged, but we only had to wait 24 hours for the sheen to be restored. Knock-out football requires that element of the unexpected for it to retain its interest and after Leeds stunned Manchester United with a famous Old Trafford victory earlier in the day, Premier League relegation candidates West Ham came within 12 minutes of ending the hopes of another 'top four' side in a gripping encounter at Upton Park. Oozing with passion and desire, Gianfranco Zola's men worked hard to establish a lead thanks to an Alessandro Diamanti goal on the stroke of half-time and just when West Ham fans were daring to dream that their New Year was to be given the most thrilling start, Arsenal found the answer with a couple of classy late goals to claim their place in round four. The introduction of substitutes Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby moved Arsenal into a gear the Hammers couldn't deal with and Aaron Ramsey's 78th minute leveller and Eduardo's stunning headed winner five minutes later gave the Gunners a victory that had seemed unlikely for long periods. Make no mistake, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was beginning to feel the pinch as the clock ticked by and his side showed little sign of forcing their way back into a tie that was heading in West Ham's direction until a double second half change that changed the tempo of the game, though he would not admit as much as he faced the press. "We saw two very committed teams in this cup tie, but I felt it was a matter of time before we established our superiority in the second half," claimed a curiously downbeat Wenger. "We have nine players out injured at this moment and it means we are fighting very hard to get through, so we need to get some of our players back to cope with all the competitions we are in. "Stoke away is a tough draw for us in the next round, but it doesn't matter where the next draw is for us because we are capable of winning anywhere if we play at our best." The bigger picture must be that this afternoon of action has served to revive the FA Cup as an entire generation of football lovers could be forgiven for believing this competition has become little more than an inconvenience in the modern fixture list. With the battle for Premier League points a priority for all, the under-strength sides so often sent out in this competition have undermined its credibility, so this was a day of redemption was much needed for the jewel in the Football Association's crown. West Ham's memories of their FA Cup Final victory over Arsenal 20 years ago and the Gunners' famous victories in this competition down the years seem to have been part of a different era of the English game and the gloomy mood of Hammers supporters on the packed tube trains before kick-off in this tie did little to fuel the belief that they believed another cup upset was in the offing. Five months of disappointments have dulled the enthusiasm of supporters who gave the distinct impression that they feared the worst as the New Year dawned and the modest hopes being invested in Zola's side were hardly boosted when his opposite number picked a side that was stronger than many Arsene Wenger has sent into FA Cup third round combat in recent years. However, West Ham's brand of hard working bustle proved enough to knock Arsenal out of their stride in the first half and while a goal did not look likely until Diamanti found the breakthrough, the Italian sprang the off-side trap well and finished with ease when his big moment came.
GettyImagesAaron Ramsey: Has won 11 Wales caps
Then, just when it seemed as if West Ham fans could dare to dream once again, Wenger's double change altered the course of this game and once the impressive Ramsey had pulled the scores level with a well taken left footed strike, the tide had turned against Zola's men. Eduardo's looping headed winner eight minutes from time was a cruel blow to a West Ham side that had worked so hard to keep their FA Cup hopes alive and Zola struggled to find a silver lining as he met the press. "I cannot fault the commitment of my players and it feels very harsh on them to lose this game," said the Italian. "We deserved the advantage we had in the first half and losing the game when we felt close to winning to tough to accept. There are positives from the performance, but disappointment that we are out." The form book may have been followed in the final analysis of this tie, but at least it feels as if the FA Cup is beginning to re-establish itself as a competition worthy of the glorious legacy it clings on to. MAN OF THE MATCH: Valon Behrami This Swiss international led by example in the West Ham midfield as he broke up so many of Arsenal's midfield bursts with an all-action display. He didn't deserve to end up on the losing side. FA CUP PASSION: Any doubts that the supporters present for this game viewed the FA Cup as a side-show in the fixture list was banished as the atmosphere built around Upton Park throughout this gripping tie. The Arsenal fans behind the goal away to our left were euphoric as Eduardo snatched his winner. WEST HAM VERDICT: Zola's men simply couldn't handle Arsenal when Wenger introduced the classy duo of Nasri and Diaby. The danger must be that their hard work ethic will not be enough to keep them afloat this season. ARSENAL VERDICT: Manchester United's demise earlier in the day means the Gunners are now strong contenders to lift the FA Cup this season and it may end up being their best chance of silverware in 2010. A tricky fourth round draw away to Stoke will not be easy.
GettyImagesWest Ham United's Luis Jimenez catches Abou Diaby with a high boot, reflecting the grittiness of this occasion