Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Arsenal record chapter in football folklore
Mark Lomas, Madejski Stadium
The afternoon of February 5, 2011 is one forever etched on the minds of Arsenal's travelling faithful. A frenetic 90 minutes at St James' Park saw the Gunners conspire to throw away a four-goal lead against Newcastle United in a game that came to epitomise the failure of Arsene Wenger's recent sides to show the sort of ruthlessness that wins silverware. The greatest redemption for that 4-4 draw will of course come when the club's now infamous trophy drought is brought to an end, but at the Madejski Stadium, a role reversal - and then some - brought a much-needed sense of reverie to the Gunners' frustrated fans.
At 4-0 down to a Reading side winless in the Premier League thus far this season, some of the away supporters began to slope away, their desertion beamed on to the Madejski's big screen to the unbridled delight of those in blue and white. Some 83 minutes after that fourth goal from Noel Hunt, when Marouane Chamakh had the final say in one of the most enthralling games ever witnessed in English football, those jeers were replaced with tears. Arsenal's astonishing 7-5 victory left Sunday League players the world over nodding knowingly, while those inside the stadium pinched themselves in disbelief.
This was our sport at its best. Though the way the match unfolded would have been abhorrent to Gunners' assistant coach Steve Bould, a chief protagonist in the "1-0 to the Ars-e-nal" area of defensive frugality, spectators were treated to a wild and wonderful night of utterly unpredictable football. Less Catenaccio and more "kamikaze" - as Brian McDermott aptly labelled his team's approach - it was a truly memorable night. "Just crazy," the Reading boss reflected in his post-match press conference. "I know this game will be remembered for a long time and that only makes me feel worse." Scant consolation for Reading came in the form of bettering the 7-4 defeat they suffered against Portsmouth in 2007, which stands as the highest scoring game in Premier League history.
McDermott, who was a loyal servant to the Gunners for six years of his playing career, came agonisingly close to ending Reading's rotten record against his former employers. But there was to be no elusive first triumph against the North Londoners, who have now won all ten matches against the Royals stretching back to 1935. "It's like a funeral [in the dressing-room]," he said afterwards; with QPR coming up this weekend it is now up to the Englishman to help his distraught players move on from their mourning.
For Wenger, this was a triumph of resilience. He had made it clear before the game that the Capital One Cup represented the lowest of his priorities this season - stating that potential signings "don't ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League". He demonstrated as much with his team selection as ten regulars were omitted ahead of this Saturday's crunch Premier League game against Manchester United. With last season's 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford impossible to forget, Wenger understandably chose to rest his regulars, though his desire to avoid another humiliation nearly caused an unexpected embarrassment at the Madejski.
If combining some of his promising youngsters and fringe players was designed to provoke displays laced with hunger and desire, it worked. Unfortunately for Wenger, it was Reading , not Arsenal, who initially appeared most spurred on by the names on the visitors' teamsheet. Veteran striker Jason Roberts, whose career began when a number of the Gunners' starting XI were still dribbling down their bibs, provided an early breakthrough - his opener supplied by Hal Robson-Kanu, a player who looked significantly more explosive than his gangly, ex-Arsenal namesake Nwankwo.
A second came soon after in the form of a Laurent Koscielny own goal, satisfyingly forced by former Tottenham defender Chris Gunter moments after he had been roundly booed by the Arsenal contingent. The Royals were being given a free reign by a lacklustre midfield and a defence that, conveniently, contained three of the back four who suffered so dismally at Old Trafford last August. Further strikes from Mikele Leigertwood and Hunt had Reading believing a quarter-final berth was theirs and led to a vociferous chant of "we want our Arsenal back" from the away end, but it was Theo Walcott's strike in stoppage time that provided the key moment in the game, according to Messrs McDermott and Wenger.
"I wasn't happy at half-time," McDermott said in his post-match press conference. "I just felt the goal gave them impetus they didn't need. When you give good players and big clubs the opportunity like that, they will take it ... I really wanted us to finish that game off. I wasn't comfortable. I felt the job was not done and I think that was the turning point." Wenger concurred with his opposite number's assessment, adding: "It was 4-0 and could have been one or two more. The goal before half time was important... At 4-1 I thought it was possible. I had hope we could come back. You cannot play for Arsenal and give up. The players understood that and they responded very well."
Galvanised by the late retort, Arsenal played some breathtaking attacking football in the second half, pummelling the Reading goal with astonishing frequency. Walcott, who along with Koscielny, Djourou, and Andrei Arshavin featured in the Gunners' 4-4 humbling on Tyneside 18 months ago, seemed driven by a personal sense of responsibility for the Newcastle nadir. In one of his most mature performances in a red and white shirt, the England winger was unquestionably the catalyst of the comeback. Relentless in his running, even deep into extra-time, it was his corners that were headed home, first by substitute Giroud and then in injury-time by Koscielny, before a 96th-minute strike of his crept over the line for a dramatic equaliser that Wenger later described as "the miracle goal".
While Arsenal's prayers were answered, the press box sat perplexed as the sound of delete buttons being pressed on keyboards echoed around the Madejski media hub. Concerns about missing deadlines saw most reporters sporting grimaces when the late leveller went in; by the end of extra-time, they were replaced with grins as all present basked in the glow of pure sporting theatre.
First came Arsenal's completion of a most unlikely fight-back, as Marouane Chamakh broke a 16-game goalless streak. That Wenger persevered with the Moroccan, who put in a dogged shift despite looking incredibly frustrated during the first-half, must be commended. An injury to left-back Ignasi Miquel two minutes later left the Gunners with only ten men, and Reading made their advantage count as a header from substitute Pavel Pogrebnyak made it 5-5. As time ebbed away and with both managers mentally preparing for a penalty shootout, Walcott offered one final telling contribution. Leaving it until the death, as he had done at the end of the first and second half in normal time, the 23-year-old pounced inside the penalty area to restore the one-goal lead. Reading hearts broken, their misery - and the incredulity of the night - was compounded seconds later by Chamakh netting the 12th and final goal of the game with an expertly executed lob.
Losing manager McDermott was a picture of professionalism after the game, amazingly insisting on searching for the positives in the face of such a crushing defeat. "It was the worst defeat of my career, to have that turnaround," he said. "It's happened to the best but it's embarrassing for all of us. We have to take it on the chin and move on to the game against QPR. The football was extraordinary in the first 35 minutes - what happened afterwards with bizarre. It's strange to take positives from a 7-5 defeat but you have to look for them. It's what football's all about - you have those disappointments. We will come back from that."
While Reading's battered boss was left lamenting his team's "suicide", Wenger could rejoice at Arsenal's resurrection in an enthralling contest that provided a spectacular advert for the oft-maligned League Cup and will deservedly earn a place in football folklore.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Theo Walcott. Three decisive contributions from the winger were responsible for this most incredible of comebacks and left his manager gushing with praise. "He was superb tonight," Wenger said. "I have always said that he will be a striker, we are on the same wavelength there. He's a good finisher- you can see."
READING VERDICT: McDermott has an almighty challenge lifting his players for a crunch game with QPR this weekend. Sapped of energy after two successive fatigue-inducing games , he is faced with a devastated dressing-room who, in his own words, must "dig deep" in what looks like a relegation six-pointer. However, on a McDermott-esque positive note, Reading's attacking play in the first half was superb and should they shore things up at the back, the Royals will have a real chance of staying in the top flight this season.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Defensively shambolic, Arsenal fans can at least be relieved that none of the back four are likely to feature against Manchester United, with Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Metersacker and Andre Santos all likely to be restored. Walcott certainly deserves to have played his way into Wenger's thinking but having admitted he was "absolutely knackered" after the game, it appears another substitute berth awaits. The Gunners are in the quarter-final draw for the Capital One Cup, but one feels that a team just a little more ruthless than Reading could punish the North Londoners in the next round.
GET SHIRTY: The end of 90 minutes brought an entertaining exchange as Francis Coquelin and Olivier Giroud threw their shirts towards the Arsenal supporters. Giroud revealed afterwards that the pair had thought they had just earned a replay at Emirates Stadium, but after hastily being corrected their shirts were returned as the bemused pair took to the field again for extra-time.