Monday, 17 February 2014

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: Dare to dream?

I don't care if it was lucky, I don't care if it was risky. I don't care if refereeing decisions favoured us (for once!), and I certainly don't care that I sounded increasingly critical of our chances prior this game.

This is the FA Cup: It is results, and results alone that rule the tournament. Screw the performances - the final scoreline is a fact that cannot be disputed by anyone. And the fact is: Arsenal two. Liverpool one.

This win HAS to be one of the highlights of this season, however mitigating the circumstances may be. Unbelievably and unexpectedly, players like Lukasz Fabianski, Nacho Monreal and Yaya Sanogo were the star men and stepped up in the absences of Szczesny, Gibbs and Giroud. It's amazing to imagine that a defence of Fabianski, Jenkinson and Monreal somehow kept out Coutinho, Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge. To witness it transcend into reality is a quite different thing altogether.

Admittedly, I had no confidence in the team going into the match at all. Aside from a seemingly mediocre lineup, Olivier Giroud's confession of cheating on his wife merely highlighted the negative mood at the club. I don't want to comment on Giroud's personal affairs on a purely football blog, instead I just hope that it doesn't affect his performances at the club.

Even if Giroud hadn't confessed before the game, I'd have still fancied Wenger to give Yaya Sanogo the start. Frankly, the fact that Wenger held this match in such incorrect priorities didn't infuriate me - I almost expected such complacency from him. The team sheet just made it official.

After our weakened team was announced, I'm not exaggerating when I say I had no faith left in our season. I actually had made my peace with it before the game kicked off, for I truly felt that Liverpool would dominate us to a comfortable victory, which would unofficially seal another trophyless season for us.

The early signs seemed to suggest that as well. Sturridge missed two chances which on another day he would have taken, and we looked distinctly average up front. I don't remember much of the initial highlights, mainly because I was seeing it with such passive indifference, dreading the inevitable that I thought was certain to come.

Amazingly, it didn't. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke the deadlock after Sanogo impressively muscled his way through and smashed a volley. It deflected off Gerrard and fell politely to the Ox, who dispatched it away with ease. Somehow, a severely depleted Arsenal side managed to go one up on a full-strength Liverpool.

The second goal, I think, was even better than the first. Ozil finally got what he wanted - a player making a productive run off the ball. Motivated to prove his doubters wrong, Mesut played an inch-perfect pass to Chamberlain. Podolski stormed into the center, gave Chamberlain an easy pass to execute and connected with the ball perfectly, past a helpless Jones. Two-nil to Arsenal... who would have thought?

Of course, then we proceeded to blow it in Arsenal fashion. Lukas Podolski needlessly challenged Suarez in the box when Monreal appeared to have it all covered. Steven Gerrard got the spot-kick and promptly scored, to provide the Mugsmashers with hope.

It wasn't enough, thankfully. Neutrals would say that Liverpool deserved at least a replay - they were arguably denied another fair penalty, and messed up presentable chances to Agger and Sturridge. Suarez had peppered the goal with shots, and the Kops might've felt that one of them was bound to enter.

Gooners have a fair argument as well. Sturridge and Gerrard committed offences worthy of bookings; Gerrard in particular was fortunate to not have been handed a second yellow card. Moreover, Suarez seemed to have made the most of light contact from Podolski; which had led to Liverpool's opener. Not to mention that Santi Cazorla really should have hit the target here.

The point is moot, anyway. I understand that a healthy section of Arsenal supporters emphasize that the performance was worrying, and it papered over the cracks. I think I agree with them - while the result was a huge morale-boost, this match did showcase some of our glaring deficiencies.

However, this is the FA Cup. It's results that matter here, not how we get it. At the end of the day, we're one tantalizing step away from Wembley and skyrocketed in confidence going into one of the biggest challenges of this season. Liverpool are out, and Arsenal are neck-deep into a competition which only poses Manchester City and Everton as genuine threats. One hopes that we don't slip a chance for silverware against the Toffees.

What pleased me the most was how the players understood their deficiencies and worked really hard to cut them down. Fan pressure has had a positive reinforcement on players like Jenkinson, Monreal, Arteta, Ozil and Sanogo, who showed their supporters how able they were to improve on their game and appease the fans. I'd especially like to extend my personal congratulations to Yaya Sanogo, who put in a toiling shift despite looking rusty throughout.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I saw blueprints in this team that could cause problems for Bayern Munich on Wednesday. The unique combinations that the manager attempted worked out beautifully, and could really help us in midweek. I'm not suggesting that Arsenal have a great chance to defeat Bayern, but we seem to have the potential to give them a real push over two legs.

We've made the Emirates Stadium a fortress. Aside from Steven Gerrard's penalty, the previous goal we conceded here was against Everton back in December. If we manage to maintain this home form until the end of the season, I'd fancy a productive 4 months for us.

Right. Now on to hosting the best club in the world in two days. Come ON Arsenal.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )