Sunday, January 29, 2012
Gunners get out of jail
Arsene Wenger may have delivered nearly 900 half-time team talks as Arsenal manager, yet few have been more significant than the oration he offered during the interval in this FA Cup fourth round tie.
• Review: Arsenal seal comeback win
• Wenger relief at comeback
• FA Cup fifth round draw
• FA Cup Gallery
• Team of the Week
• Saturday: Kuyt grabs grudge spoils
With the jeers of his own supporters ringing in his ears after a lamentable first half performance from his lacklustre team saw them reach the halfway point 2-0 behind, Wenger knew his well-worn script of excuses would not drown out the growing frustration of supporters whose previously unshakable devotion to their manager is being tested like never before.
If a month that has included defeats against Fulham, Swansea and Manchester United had concluded with a harrowing FA Cup exit against Aston Villa in front of a disgruntled Emirates Stadium audience, the final, substantial clutch of devotees to the Wenger cause may have struggled to contain the bubble of anger that has been simmering under the surface.
As he assembled his shell-shocked troops for this interval dressing down, the need for him to deliver the right message had never been more acute. Blunt in attack and lacklustre in defence, the first scenes of this drama offered up an all-too familiar tale for an Arsenal side playing before a larger than average array of unoccupied red seats.
Those unwanted pews, despite an official attendance of 60,019, provided some confirmation that a growing number of Arsenal fans are losing faith in a team who have guaranteed little more than false promise in recent years, with the looming disaster offered by this FA Cup tie threatening to plunge Arsenal's season into a full blown crisis.
Goals from Richard Dunne and Darren Bent were all too predictable as, in truth, Arsenal looked vulnerable every time Villa broke into their attacking third in the opening 45 minutes. The persistently uncomfortable presence of reserve keeper Lukas Fabianski and the consistently unconvincing Per Mertesacker were fuelling the suspicion that Wenger had fluffed his lines with his latest starting line-up, with Arsenal's supporters hardly in forgiving mood on a day when victory was demanded.
It is at moments such as this that the game's great managers tend to rise to the occasion and such was the plotline here, with a stony-faced Wenger delivering what he later described as a 'calm' team-talk that inspired an instant response in the opening 15 minutes of what could be a season-defining second half.
Two Robin van Persie penalties sandwiched a fortunate Theo Walcott goal to transform this captivating tie in thrilling fashion, giving the always immaculately presented Wenger an opportunity to insist those who may have been preparing obituaries for his team should steer clear of such pessimism.
"Our desire to stay in the FA Cup was enough to get us back into the game, but I always believed in this team's spirit and ability to perform as they did after the break," stated a curiously sombre Wenger. "I felt the 2-0 half-time score line was very harsh on us and so long as we scored the next goal, we would always have a chance.
"Villa were catching us on counter attacks and that is something we needed to address, but the key for me was that we needed to stay focused and calm. The second half performance confirmed that we can produce under pressure and this is what we need to build on. We are through to the next round of the cup and it doesn't matter so much now how we got there.
"I look at the performance in the second half against Manchester United last week and the display in the second half here was another example of what we can do when we play with a good tempo and with a clear mind."
Villa's red-faced and fiery Scottish boss Alex McLeish was never likely to be as laid back as he assessed the wreckage of his FA Cup dream, with what he described as a 'terrible eight minute spell' costing his side what could have been a famous victory at Emirates Stadium.
"We have to take this result on the chin, even though that seems hard to do at this moment," stated McLeish. "The first Arsenal goal gave them the lift they needed and we spoke about trying to avoid that at half-time. Their second goal came far too quickly for us as well and amid it all, we had the chances to snatch a draw.
"I felt the second of their penalties was a little harsh, but we gave them a chance to come back into the game and they have the pace to hurt you on the flanks. Still we have to get over this and look to our next league game, which is vitally important to us."
On a day when so many of Arsenal's enduring failings were given another public airing, it seems a little over optimistic to suggest this victory is a turning point that offers the potential to direct their troubled season on a more glorious course.
However, that has to be the mantra Arsene Wenger promotes after this ominous brush with disaster.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie - Two coolly taken penalties were required by the captain to ease Arsenal into the fifth round of the FA Cup. When they needed their leader to deliver, he held his nerve superbly.
WENGER PROGRAMME NOTES: The Arsenal manager conceded his side need to improve their focus over the course of an entire 90 minutes if they are to achieve their targets for this season, yet the first half of this game was another example of their inability to do just that.
DUNNE ESCAPE: Referee Mike Jones was bizarrely generous as he refused to hand Villa's Richard Dunne a second yellow card for hacking down Aaron Ramsey in the box to hand Arsenal their first penalty. The challenge could even have resulted in a straight red card, and the already cautioned Irishman was hugely fortunate to stay on the field.
SAGNA RETURN: Wenger was delighted to see Bacary Sagna make his long-awaited return from injury in this game, but he could offer no suggestion of a possible comeback date for midfielder Jack Wilshere after his latest injury setback.
VILLA VERDICT: Tactically superb and oozing with energy in the first half, the visitors executed their game plan with clinical precision in the first half. Stephen Ireland, in particular, shone in their early burst, yet their second half capitulation was a major disappointment for boss Alex McLeish.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Having dodged this potentially devastating FA Cup bullet, Wenger now has the Champions League tie against AC Milan, an FA Cup fifth round date against Middlesbrough or Sunderland and league games against Spurs and Liverpool on the horizon. January has hardly been a triumph for Arsenal, but February seems certain to make or break their season.