Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday February 17 2009
Even on a joyous game such as last night, it would not be me if I did not have some kind of sullen moan, so I`ll get it out of the way early. Last night`s game was senselessly and needlessly played on a Monday evening due to the unwelcome interference of Setanta. With the original replay slain by the inclement weather, this game really ought to have been played on Saturday, leaving this midweek free to play the 5th Round. (You may remember this wasn`t a problem two years ago, when 4th Round replays were slated just three days before 5th Round ties, leaving us winning our 4th Round replay at the Reebok after extra time, just before 11pm on Wednesday evening, before playing Blackburn in the 5th Round at 12noon on the Saturday). But Setanta-, who had scheduled the prospective 5th Round tie with Burnley for Monday evening, could not be arsed to alter their schedules and so decided to disrupt the fixture calendars of ourselves, Cardiff City, Burnley, Sheffield United and Hull City respectively. It`s no wonder the channel is floundering miserably in the subscription stakes when they so visibly treat their customer base with such contempt. They are already audibly and tunefully derided by travelling England fans. Having already cancelled my own subscription in order to make a point, I don`t know of any other way to register my disgust with them other than in the most public way available to me.
Nevertheless, though Valentine`s weekend was at a close, there was a lot of love in the arena when Arsenal`s number 9 was announced in the starting line up, with Vela and Bendtner ably supporting in a virtual 4-3-3 formation. His appearance certainly lifted the crowd and that translated itself onto the players on the pitch, with the principal bearers of the Emirates brunt, Adebayor and Eboue, sidelined by injury and suspension respectively, a new era was ushered in with Vela and Eduardo selected in their places. Arsenal instantly looked fresher and more revitalised, Bendtner seemed to thrive on the confidence and put in his best shift of the season so far. His key critics might do well to remember that Chelsea`s 4th choice striker is Miroslav Stoch, Liverpool`s is El Zhar, United`s is Danny Welbeck and Villa`s Nathan Delfonueuso. Not one of those players can claim the contribution Bendtner has offered in the last eighteen months. In fact, I would chance that the four of them put together would struggle. Arsenal were feeding avariciously off of the good vibes and hit the ground running, one of a litany of Bacary Sagna crosses throughout the game found the head of Nicklas Bendtner; whose header drifted inches wide. The young Dane would be denied minutes later by some inspirational goalkeeping, Carlos Vela`s low strike was parried by United loanee Tom Heaton, Bendtner latched on to the rebound, but Heaton made a good, sprawling save, throwing himself at the ball like a last gasp action hero smothering a grenade, preparing to bear its terminal boom. Heaton was seemingly looking to make a name for himself with Cardiff`s first choice goalie Peter Enckelman injured, Vela hung in a cute cross from the left which found William Gallas unmarked at the back post, but Heaton saved well with his legs. Eduardo`s audacious chip from the halfway line nearly caught him out, but with Valentine`s Day consigned to the memory banks and the "romance of the cup" apparently fading into nostalgia, a moment of sentiment would be the Cardiff keeper`s undoing.
Carlos Vela raced down the left touchline, tucked the ball inside to Eduardo who played a deft ball back to his Mexican amigo and carried his run into the box. Vela delivered a precise cross which might well have been slung from cupid`s arrow and Eduardo warmed every heart in the stadium by coolly dispatching his header into the net. 359 days after seeing the man prone on the turf in the West Midlands and discussed the prospect of him ever playing again in the Railway End, here we were cheering another of his expert finishes in the penalty area. A truly remarkable transition and one that speaks of both of his physical courage and mental strength as well as the hard work of those that supported him, emotionally and physically. But the home side were in no mood to stand and admire, it was more a case of stand and deliver. Nasri`s right foot shot squirmed under the body of Heaton and drifted just wide. The Bluebirds could not handle Arsenal`s effusive swagger and on 34 minutes the game was put beyond them. Nasri floated in a left wing corner (a corner from the left that is, not a corner delivered by Tony Benn) and Nicklas Bendtner angled a gorgeous header into the far corner with Cardiff leaving both posts unguarded. The same player should have scored a richly deserved third goal too, Vela controlled another Sagna cross and fired straight at Heaton, the rebound fell to Bendtner who was leaning back just slightly and hit his shot against the foot of the post, Heaton was up smartly once again to block his rebounded effort. Of course I put the seal on it by remarking seconds earlier that Bendtner rarely misses when put in front of goal. Half time and the first time I can remember us not being booed off at home at half time in a long time. The feel good factor provided by Eduardo`s goal was even gratifying the fully paid up members of the microwave culture that pass for "fans" at home games these days. And those guys enjoy nothing more than gutturally spilling out their negativity on all of us, it`s the only reason they attend. Miracles will never cease.
The Gunners were keen to cease on the fact that they were actually performing really rather well for once and began the second half with gusto, Cardiff looking rather punch drunk, like a staggering boxer desperate not to go down for the count but whose legs and battered face were crying surrender. Vela was lucky not to be booked for a dive in the box early in the half, having already been booked for diving against Bolton last month, I trust the supporters that use Eboue`s theatrics as an excuse for their thinly veiled hatred of the man will turn on Vela in the same fashion. Perhaps we football fans are not quite the bastions of moral disgust that we like to think we are. However, there was little suspicious about Arsenal`s next penalty claim. Bendtner`s shot was once again saved by Heaton, and Eduardo, quickly sensing the situation, placed himself between the ball and Darren Purse, inviting the foul that duly arrived. Eduardo picked the ball up and nobody rushed to take it off of him. He converted the penalty with the sort of sangfroid that is his trademark in front of goal. His celebration acknowledged firstly his wife in the stands and then fitness coach Tony Colbert on the bench. Arsene Wenger quipped afterwards that Colbert had seen more of Eduardo than he had his own wife in the last year; romance was certainly in the air in the twin tributes of Eduardo`s celebration. He might have sealed his evening with a hat trick, Sagna`s cross was parried by Heaton and Eduardo hooked the ball goalwards, only to be blocked by the sprawling keeper. He was substituted seconds later to one of the more rapturous ovations our ground has seen.
Substitute Amaury Bischoff almost opened his Arsenal account when van Persie fed him from the right; he juggled the ball outside to his left foot and dragged the shot just wide. Arsenal put the seal on an emphatic performance in injury time; Bendtner played an excellent through ball to Robin van Persie who gleefully smashed the ball between Heaton`s legs with his sweet like chocolate right foot. That`s eight goals this season now on the weaker foot which would have been unthinkable eighteen months ago. Van Persie would then contrive to head Bendtner`s cross against the foot of the post with the last touch of the game, but even had it gone in, the night would easily have belonged to one man. The team performance was as fluent as I can remember for a long time, there seemed to be a buoyancy and enthusiasm to our play that has been missing for months on end. A lease of fresh blood into a team that had become stale and predictable had done wonders and hopefully this will provide the team with the catalyst they need to kick on for the rest of the season. Amos` article from the weekend touched on the possible symmetry of the run in for this season compared with last, we are getting players back where last year we lost them, the crisis in confidence and subsequent malaise since that day at St. Andrews all seemed to lift from the shoulders of the team. Eduardo`s return looked to be cathartic, but we still must exercise patience and allow him to slot back in at his own speed. To complete the sense of symmetry, a year ago last night a 4-0 defeat in this competition at Old Trafford was the start of the downturn, could a 4-0 victory in this tournament ignite our renaissance. These questions will be answered in time, but with Tony Colbert now allowed to be more attentive to his wife now and Eduardo able to salute his from the football pitch, it appeared that on Valentine`s weekend, the romance of the cup was back for one small flicker of recognition.LD.
Date:Tuesday February 17 2009
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