It’s done. Thank the sweet Lord Jesus, we don’t have to listen to that trophy drought nonsense any more. But just how difficult did our boys have to make it?
We all knew that the main battle wouldn’t be on the pitch, it would be in our players’ heads. As Raddy pointed out yesterday, if we’d been looking at a league game against Hull, we’d be perfectly confident. But with all the weight of being favourites in a final, multiplied ten-fold by the nine-years-without-a-pot schtick, laced with sore memories of the failure against Birmingham, this was more than a match against Hull.
The scene was set: by my guess, two-thirds of the fans in the stadium were ours. We finished the league season strongly. The balmy May evening air was full of positivity. Surely ……
We had a strong line-up: Fabianski was given the nod to finish his Arsenal career ahead of his compatriot; no Ox, Wilshere on the bench, and of course no Theo. But otherwise, pretty much what we’d want. Hull couldn’t field their two January signings, the cup-tied Long and Jelavic, but they had a few useful players, like Curtis Davies, Ahmed Elmohamady and Tom Huddlestone. However, there was nothing that should have scared us. We’d arrived having knocked out Spurs, Coventry, Liverpool, Everton and Wigan, whereas Hull had had an easier ride, having met Middlesborough, Southend, Brighton, Sunderland and Sheffield United.
And then the game kicked off. The game hadn’t settled down to a pattern when Hull earned a corner in the third minute. Stephen Quinn sent a hard, flat-ish cross to Huddlestone, who’d stationed himself just outside the box, enjoying space vacated by the runners into the box. The ex-Spur fluffed his shot, sending it very wide. But James Chester found the ball suddenly coming towards him, and he speculatively tried redirecting it towards goal. There wasn’t much pace on the shot but it crept beyond Fabianski’s reach and into the corner of the net. Disaster. You have to wonder if Cazorla was slow in seeing the space that Huddlestone created for himself, Santi should really have been tighter. And had we had both posts guarded at the corner, Chester’s shot would have been cleared without fuss.
Still, the one good thing about conceding early is that you have plenty of time to come back. And the goal was pretty lucky in nature. I don’t know about others but I was no more than annoyed by the Chester goal. However, five minutes later, things went seriously wrong. Hull got a free-kick on our left flank. It was cleared but in the second phase was picked up by Quinn, whose cross was met by Alex Bruce’s header into the turf. Fabianski flung himself at the ball, which might have been creeping into the corner. In fact, it hit the outside of the post, but Davies followed up excellently, and sent a crisp, angled shot across the now prone Fabianski and into the net. Oh my God, how could be going this wrong, this quickly? The three Hull centre-backs were killing us, they were dominating play at both ends of the pitch, and we were paying a huge price for it.
We desperately needed to find a toehold, to get into the game. None of our players had impressed, and we lacked energy and ideas. Hull even had another header cleared off the line by Gibbs. However, Santi earned a freekick in a dangerous position in the 15th minute. We don’t score too many freekick goals but the beauty that Cazorla put in was a classic – the ball’s trajectory arced into the top corner on the keeper’s left-hand side. The kidology as to whether Cazorla or Podolski would take the freekick paid off, prompting the keeper to take a small move to his right just as the shot was taken, and that was enough to deny the keeper the chance to reach Cazorla’s sublime shot. We were back in the game, we had something to build on.
Without a doubt, Arsenal were better after the first goal but it was tough going, to break down a very well organised Hull defence. At the end of the game, Aaron Ramsey was announced as the official man of the match – that was a travesty, I thought Curtis Davies (a player Wenger was apparently interested in a few years back) would have been the right recipient. The scoreline settled down at 2-1 to Hull, with both sets of players working hard but lacking quality. Ozil didn’t really turn up (and missed a reasonable chance that flashed across him). Ramsey was poor for much of the game. Poldi had a couple of shots, but didn’t ever impose himself. Until Sanogo came on, Giroud was played out of the game by Davies and really struggled to do much. We were very laboured in our play. Hull’s defensive unit were sharper, though they were also finding plenty of excuses to waste little parcels of time. It was all so transparent.
In the 56th minute, there was a demonstration of fan solidarity, with a minute of applause to honour the 56 spectators killed in the Valley Parade disaster in Bradford in 1985. Shortly after that, we should have been awarded a penalty, when Huddlestone clearly pulled Giroud back by his neck. The referee, Lee Probert, looked well placed but failed give the penalty.
I have to admit, I was surprised when Wenger chose to swap Poldi for Yaya Sanogo. There’s always that possibility with Podolski, even not playing brilliantly, that his wonderful shooting will suddenly provide a goal. But with 45 minutes having passed since Cazorla’s goal, something needed to be changed, and Wenger decided to switch formations by bringing on the young, non-scoring Frenchman. We now had two up front, a rare thing for us. And this I think was a crucial moment in the game. That change of shape mattered. We were more incisive after Sanogo came on, and more was happening in the attacking penalty box. In fact, there were two further good penalty shouts soon after Sanogo came on, one when Huddlestone made contact with Yaya’s leg, one when Livermore handled. Both should have been given, but were hard to spot.
The same cannot be said for the obvious foul of Davies on Cazorla a little later, when Ramsey had fed the ball into the mini-Spaniard. Davies over-committed and chopped down Santi after he checked back. It was plainly a penalty, no replays were needed (though they did confirm that it was a foul). How Probert missed it is beyond me. But the pressure was building nicely, we were pegging Hull back and starting to open them up finally.
It finally paid off in the 70th minute, when a corner was headed by Sagna and, via a deflection, the ball fell to Koscielny, who turned and scuffed a little shot through the legs of the oncoming Hull keeper and into the net. Kos was taken out by the keeper, so had to celebrate the goal while in pain and on the deck. But finally, finally, we were back on level terms, and the energy and momentum by that stage were with us. From that point on, we were in control of the match.
Gibbs had a great chance to win the game in the 90 when played in by Sanogo – from no more than eight yards out and having given himself time, Gibbs skied his shot. It really had to go on target, even from a defender. Probert missed yet another clear penalty, when Myler knocked over Cazorla. What is wrong with this bloke, he’s not even a northerner who might have a grudge about Arsenal’s cosmopolitan character? The pressure on Hull continued, with Giroud catching a clearance from a corner very nicely though his shot from the edge of the box was well saved. The last decent chance before extra time fell to Sanogo, whose shot went a fraction wide of the post.
And so to extra time.
The first period passed with more Arsenal pressure but the only moment of penetration was when Giroud hit the bar with a header from a Ramsey cross. We really needed something to change, the greatest threat we now faced being the lottery that is a penalty-shootout. Wenger played his last two cards, bringing on Wilshere and Rosicky for Ozil and Cazorla. The effect was evident: against the tired legs of Hull, Little Mozart and Little Jack added some real zip to our passing.
In the 18th minute of the second period of extra time, our moment of salvation. A series of rapid passes saw Sanogo and Giroud link up in the penalty box, with Olly then backheeling the ball back towards the oncoming Ramsey, who stabbed an early shot into the bottom corner of the net. The key was the rapidity of the passing, leaving McGregor too little time to react.
Sanogo had a chance to do an Anelka in 1998. But his shot across goal was well saved by the keeper. And there was a heart in mouth moment at the end, when Mertesacker stumbled, allowing Aluko to launch an unexpected attack. Fabianski chose to rush out to the flank to try to intercept the ball but lost the race with Aluko but fortunately for us he couldn’t quite find the empty net from distance. A little later, Sanogo span on the ball with a sharp shot well saved by the keeper, and then Aluko had a decent long range shot saved by Fabianski.
And finally the whistle went, and we were done! Our oppo may not have been the most glamorous, and the technical level may not have been the highest yesterday, but coming back from 2-0 down represents a significant achievement. We were deserved winners in the end, but Hull were heroes, much respect to them.
It was fantastic to see our boys get to go up the steps and lift the cup, and I loved the players’ focus on Wenger in the celebrations – they knew he’d done a lot for them. That is the last time we’ll see Fabianski play for us, and possibly the last for Sagna, which adds a note of disappointment.
Watching Vermaelen lifting the trophy was also a bit strange, we’ll have to see what the future has in store for him. But that’s tomorrow’s problem. I never agreed with those who said we’d spent the last nine years failing but it was tremendous to be able to indulge in the simple pleasure of seeing our own players lift a trophy. From an Arsenal Arsenal perspective, I’m sure we’d all like to dedicate this trophy win to our recently departed Dandan – he’d have loved this moment every bit as any one of us.
A trip to Upper Street anyone????
Written by 26may