Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday February 28 2011
This really did feel like out chance. Arsenal had lost their last two finals previous to yesterday, but those defeats had been meted out by Chelsea in their prime and Barcelona. I honestly thought we would banish the hoodoo. I was nervous, but rather excited making the trip to North West London. A smooth journey into Marylebone was had as we journeyed to the Castle pub in Harrow on the Hill for some lunch and a few pre match jars. Marylebone seemed to be a sea of blue as Birmingham fans arrived earliest, determined to enjoy their day. Indeed, by the time we swung through the doors of the Castle shortly before noon, we were greeted by a minibus party from the Midlands who roundly booed our entrance. As I`d departed home mid morning, London was bathed in a watery, but cool spring sunshine. Come 2.45pm and departure for Wembley Park, sheeting rain greeted our walk down Wembley Way. There`s something very visually correct about a team in red and a team in blue playing one another at Wembley in a glorious contrast of colour.
We arrived in the stadium at about quarter to four, tense, but confident that I had seen the ingredients in the team over the last few months to conquer the proverbial monkey on the back and get the job done. But within 120 seconds, we were counting our blessings. Gardner aimed a high ball for Zigic, not for the first time, Arsenal stood off the gangly Croatian, he chested the ball down for Lee Bowyer, who had raced past the idle Alex Song and found himself taken down in the box by Szczesny. Fortunately we were rescued by one of the worst offside calls you`re likely to see this season. Sat where we were, on the halfway line in the upper tier, it was rather obvious Bowyer was well onside and we realised we had escaped. Maybe it was to be our day, we thought aloud. Deprived of Fabregas, Arsenal struggled to establish any emphasis in their passing game. But Nasri did weave an intelligent ball into Arshavin in the area, the Russian turned Roger Johnson but hit his shot straight at Ben Foster`s legs. Nasri again looked to provide the spark in Cesc`s absence, but in truth, it`s a rather massive void to fill. Nasri did dip and dummy and feint around three Birmingham defenders before lashing the ball over from a tight angle.
Birmingham were closing Arsenal down rabidly and the pressing game indirectly led to their opener, as Wilshere allowed himself to be intimidated by Bowyer`s urgent pressing, allowing a Sagna pass to escape him. Fahey sent in a cross which Koscielny headed behind for a corner. Seb Larsson pinged the resulting delivery to Roger Johnson on the penalty spot; he beat Koscielny to the ball whilst Djourou inexplicably wandered away from Zigic, allowing him a free header to put Birmingham into the lead. Arsenal`s response was good and they almost equalised immediately, when Wilshere found Sagna on the right and his excellent delivery was headed millimetres wide by van Persie. However, disaster nearly struck when once again, Arsenal refused to try and attack a long ball, this time to Gardner, who flicked the ball onto Zigic. The Croatian went clean through on the keeper, but Szczesny made himself big and made the stop. Considering Birmingham`s main tactic was to provide flick ons on the edge of the area; it is simply astounding that Song was nowhere to be seen time and again in tracking Birmingham`s runners. I have to say I think the occasion rather got to Song, given how careless he was in possession to boot.
But the Gunners prodded and eventually found an equaliser. Arshavin teed up Wilshere on the edge of the area, his shot crashed the Wembley crossbar as he began to wheel away in celebration. Arshavin was alive to the rebound, controlling it in the area and accelerating past Ridgewell to the by-line, before clipping the ball back to van Persie, who swivelled and hit a right foot volley into the bottom corner. In doing so, he wrapped his knee around Jiranek`s hip and eventually had to go off. With Fabregas and Walcott already missing and the prognosis for van Persie "not good" according to the manager, it is difficult not to get the feeling that injuries are threatening to rip a promising season apart yet again. The end of the half looked promising for Arsenal when Nasri fired in a shot from range which Ben Foster palmed away. I was convinced that the Gunners had got over their wobble and would complete the job in the second half.
A few minutes into the second period, the Gunners put together their best move of the match. Arshavin hit a cross field pass to van Persie, the Dutchman flicked an intelligent ball down the line for Sagna and his cut back found Rosicky, but his sweeping shot flew just wide. But the Gunners game quickly went stale again. Without Cesc on board, we really are a good deal less than 50% of the team, as evidenced in the last 3 matches. Wilshere over hit a pass intended for Djourou, Beausajour muscled Djourou off the ball, teed up Fahey, his initial shot was blocked by Koscielny, but when the rebound fell to him, he prodded a shot against the inside of the post. We breathed a sigh of relief, in hindsight, it might have been better had it gone in. At least we would have had time to recover. Van Persie eventually had to come off, whilst Arshavin also made way for Chamakh. With Clichy on a yellow card and Arshavin continually standing by and performing a watching brief as 34 year old Stephen Carr showed him a clean pair of heels time and again, it was the correct decision to remove him.
Arsenal had a renewed impetus and began to pin the Blues back into their own area. Roger Johnson could barely walk (McLeish later revealed that he hadn`t trained all week). Bendtner picked his way through a crowded penalty area and forced a save from Ben Foster and Foster showed quick hands to prevent Rosicky from nudging the rebound home. Nasri`s low cross found Rosicky, but Foster was quickly out to smother the Czech`s back heel flick. Arsenal were beginning to pepper the Birmingham goal and Foster was again called into action when Nasri fired another shot from range. Foster deservedly picked up the man of the match award, but in truth, he would have been disappointed not to have saved any of the shots he did. For the most part, Arsenal`s shooting lacked precision. Only van Persie`s goal and Rosicky`s attempt from Sagna`s cross went anywhere near the corner. Extra time looked to be on the cards, Birmingham were out on their feet but still plugging away on pure adrenaline. But catastrophe was afoot. Foster sent a long free kick into Arsenal`s area, Zigic won the flick on but the ball was dropping harmlessly towards Szczesny. The goalkeeper gave a shout as Koscielny prepared to hook clear, both players neglected their duties and the ball broke loose to Obefami Martins, who was merely standing still in the area. He rolled the ball into an empty net and Birmingham are League Cup winners this morning. The total c*** that slapped Koscielny on the head as he wheeled away deserves nothing but bad things for the rest of his career. If Fabregas only giving away two of his shirts to Huddersfield players is worthy of the scorn it received, then surely this deserves at least one or two column inches. Anyway, I suppose it doesn`t really matter now.
What matters is that Birmingham won the game and we have blown an inviting chance to get the trophy monkey off the back and build a platform for better things. I do wonder if Fabregas looked on yesterday and asked himself, "Do I really have to do everything myself?" We rather shot ourselves in the foot in a way that is becoming alarmingly regular. I really thought we were going to win yesterday and show that we`d changed, but the collective schizophrenia reared its head again at the worst possible time. The clucking of tongues and the sharpening of knives will be heard in the distance and it is a worry as to what effect this will have on the rest of our season. But whilst losing a final is incredibly gutting, it`s a part of life when you support a club that gets to so many. (United have lost ten finals since 1981). The recriminations will be swift and biting, but there really is no point in performing any diagnoses until May. This stands as a huge test of our resolve and character. I`m talking about supporters as well as players. There`s still silverware to be had in this season if our resolve is correct. The best thing we can do is turn up on Wednesday night in force and in full voice. As tempting as it is to pout and strop, that is only going to be counterproductive. The players will be very down and we need to do everything we can to pick them up and forge something memorable for the season. There are still plenty of chances to do so. "What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better." Wendell Phillips.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 7.ROSICKY, 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (29.Chamakh `76), 10.v.PERSIE (52.Bendtner `68). Unused; 1.Almunia, 15.Denilson, 18.Squillaci, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs.
Date:Monday February 28 2011
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