ARSENAL (3) vs ASTON VILLA (2)
THE rousing nature of a classic FA Cup comeback should be enough to convince Arsenal’s confidence starved players they are capable of ending a seven-year wait for silverware, according to their manager Arsene Wenger.
Booed off at half time having trailed to Richard Dunne’s header and a Darren Bent sucker punch, it seemed certain, barring a Champions League miracle, that Arsenal would end a seventh consecutive season without a trophy.
But within 16 minutes of the re-start a brace of Robin van Persie penalties and a fortuitous Theo Walcott strike helped Arsenal secure an FA Cup lifeline and a trip to either Middlesbrough or Sunderland in round five.
“When we had to play the Carling Cup final last year we were nervous because we hadn’t delivered, but they have learnt from that. Hopefully we can show it this year,” said Wenger. “I hope [the comeback means] we can bounce back in the Premier League as well. I hope it convinces the team we have the required qualities and we can transfer that to the league.”
Three consecutive defeats had left their mark on an Arsenal team who had already overcome one bout of self doubt earlier this season, and once Villa had stemmed the early tide the visitors exposed a familiar weakness.
Caught napping at a short corner, Arsenal allowed Robbie Keane to send over a cross that was powered home by Dunne, and when they left themselves horribly exposed to a swift counter in first-half injury time, Bent applied an exquisite finish from a tight angle after his initial effort had been parried by Lukasz Fabianski.
Stung by criticism from their fans and possibly their manager too, Arsenal roared out of the traps and turned the game on its head with three goals in seven minutes.
Van Persie plundered his first from the spot in the 54th minute after Dunne tripped Aaron Ramsey and the Gunners were level 60 seconds later when Alan Hutton’s panicked clearance rebounded off Walcott and beyond goalkeeper Shay Given.
Bent then brought a clumsy end to Laurent Koscielny’s 50-yard surge, allowing Van Persie to complete the salvage operation from 12 yards.
Arsene Wenger is not the tea cup launching type, but whatever words of wisdom he imparted on his players at half time certainly had the desired effect. Suddenly the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky were daring to pass forwards rather than sideways and run beyond lone striker Robin van Persie. Quite why it took a half time dressing down to elicit that sort of response is a debate for another day, but Arsenal’s fightback confirmed the players still believe in their manager’s methods.
“I congratulated them on the first half but said ‘I want to be congratulating you at full-time’. It’s difficult for me to explain what happened. The home team were always going to have a crack after the break, and I’m sure the manager would have roasted them at half-time. I thought the second penalty was a bit harsh, and their second goal appeared to hit Walcott’s arm to go into net.”
Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish
Wenger has been at pains to quell expectations with regards to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and used his programme notes to guard against heaping too much pressure on him. Having overplayed Jack Wilshere last year and suffered the consequences, the temptation must be to use the former Saints star sparingly. But such a convincing case is Chamberlain making for regular inclusion that, coupled with Arsenal’s problems, it’s difficult to see how Wenger can do without him.