Arsenal 1 Leeds United 0
After what was a fairly tepid third round weekend, distinctly lacking in romance, the return of Thierry Henry would have greatly cheered the moguls of ESPN. It gave them at last a smidgen of a chance to try and bleed some romance from the 3rd Round of the F.A. Cup. My only concern was that the return of Thierry might turn the game into something of a sideshow. It`s all about progression in the cup. Win the game, qualify for the next round and then forget all about it. I worried that the swooning would distract us from the ultimate task.
Arsene was good to his word and selected as strong a team as was available to him, minus the rested van Persie and Mertesacker. Mikel Arteta deservedly took the captain`s armband. Arsenal started in lively fashion and really ought to have taken the lead inside the first ten minutes. Aaron Ramsey bossed the midfield and he set the tone early on by playing a ball into the feet of Chamakh; the Moroccan touched the ball into the path of Arshavin, who blazed the ball over from the edge of the area under little duress from the Leeds defence.
Leeds were predictably set up to defend deep and use the likes of Andros Townsend (who appeared to have trouble staying on his feet all night) and Varynynen on the flanks on the break, with Becchio throwing his weight around up front. Arsenal earned a right wing free kick following some industrious chasing down by Chamakh on the touchline. Arteta swung the free kick into the area and Squillaci rose to head just wide. It was the captain for the night again who threatened the sanctity of the Leeds goal; his long shot from range just shaving the base of the post on its way out.
But Leeds dug in and fostered the best chance of the half on the half hour mark. Townsend`s cross from the Leeds right resulted in confusion on Arsenal`s back post, with Varynynen attacking the cross. The loose ball dropped to Becchio from close range, but the Argentine blasted a rising ball over the crossbar. Thereafter, Arsenal struggled for inspiration. Ramsey brought the probing threat, but shorn of the first choice front three, the Gunners seriously lacked a cutting edge. Their full back problems were compounded when Coquelin appeared to pull a hamstring whilst making a rampaging run.
Therein lay an illustration of why Chamberlain isn`t quite ready for the first team yet. As Coquelin lay prone, Leeds mounted an attack on Arsenal`s right and Chamberlain- despite the lack of an operational full back- did not chase back. Even when the attack petered out, he had to be told by Squillaci to drop back whilst Coquelin received treatment. Ramsey ended up pulling rank and filling in himself. These are the elements of the game Chamberlain is still a long way short in and the reason he isn`t featuring just yet. Nico Yennaris was eventually brought on and he provided an impressive assurance.
But at half time, you felt Arsenal were lacking that je ne sais quoi, that va va voom even. They once again set abut their task with gumption early in the second half. Oxlade Chamberlain attacked Richardson, cleverly flicked himself into some space before firing a left footed shot into the side netting. Chamberlain brought a save out of Lonergan when he connected with Ramsey`s touch back with a full blooded half volley, stinging the keeper`s palms. That sort of confidence is exactly why he has every chance of being a future star.
The Gunners were probing an opening but lacking a killer touch. Ramsey`s lofted ball over to the back post found Arshavin in space, but he badly shanked his volley. The Russian was again involved when he ran onto Miquel`s interception and pass, but as he fired across goal, there was nobody seeking that final touch. Arshavin was again at the centre of the Arsenal attack as he crossed low from the left, Chamakh touched the ball back to Arteta, but the ball was not quite out of his feet and Lonergan was able to make a sprawling save.
The build up play was beyond reproach. The killer instinct was lacking. Arsenal sent for their all time record goal scorer for one last soiree. He immediately looked to stretch Leeds with his movement, firstly just missing Song`s overhit diagonal pass and then finding himself offside from Ramsey`s through ball. I was concerned that the players had become consumed by the side show and were more intent on feeding Henry than of winning the game.
But one last pass would do it. Song moved forward with the ball, Leeds` young full back Richardson momentarily lost concentration and failed to push up with his defensive colleagues. It was a one second lapse, but it was all that was necessary. Song, already buoyed by seven assists this season, played a perfectly measured ball to Henry, who had peeled off into the left channel like he always has. The touch was perfect, setting the ball out of his feet and slaying it with perfect control at the same time, before stroking the most trademark of finishes into the bottom corner. Gently sweeping the ball beyond the keeper into the far corner. For three seconds, it was 2004 all over again.
Henry raced to the touchline in ecstasy; every single one of his team mates ran to join him. Even Szczesny darted over to express congratulation. My doubts about his effect on team spirit dispelled in an instant. There was so much that was unsatisfying about the end of his time with the club. His last ever goal, a mere footnote in a faceless draw at Middlesbrough. His last appearance, bent double, wracked with pain as Arsenal limped out of the Champions League to PSV Eindhoven. The fact that he never got to break the goal scoring record at his beloved Highbury. You felt his legend was worthy of a greater ending. All those niggling frustrations, erased in one moment. The legend had returned to rewrite his final epitaph. A transcendent moment.
Leeds mounted one final threat as Ross McCormack found himself unmarked from eight yards out, meeting Townsend`s cross with a firm header that was clawed away by Szczesny. Arshavin hit the side netting from an obscure angle in injury time. But there was simply no taking the limelight from Henry. He wasn`t seeking it, but it found him and attached itself to him. He raised his arms at the final whistle and let out a primitive scream to the sky.
In my own way, I was able to make my own peace with the legend of Henry last night. I had some regrets about his leaving. Not that he left, or the manner in which he made the move. But my memory of this phenomenal player was ever so slightly soured by his last couple of seasons at the club. I felt he was guilty of putting his ego above the team- prompting the public power politics with Jose Reyes. I thought he was guilty of not giving his all in away matches in those last two seasons, away from the eyes of his adoring public- before resuming full effort before his swooning crowd at Highbury. Prompting me to write this piece upon his departure. In the grand scheme of Thierry Henry`s Arsenal career, it`s needle in haystack stuff. It constituted a 1 or 2% dilution of my appreciation of his status.
Many accused me of having an axe to grind with him; which just wasn`t true. But that`s what adulation sees. The slightest criticism of your hero feels like a visceral and constant attack. It also ignores plenty of fawning pieces about the man, such as this one As Percy Sledge once sang, "Loving eyes never see." As time has passed, the anger in the former piece I have linked above has dimmed and looks overstated in hindsight. I guess I was just kicking back against what I perceived to be the histrionics over his departure. But that`s not to say it hasn`t been in the back of my mind since. Just a glimmer of me felt unable to 100% throw myself into the myth of the man.
But last night corrected that. If he doesn`t manage anything else in an Arsenal shirt for the next six weeks- and we should be wary of expecting miracles in every match- it`s like a perfect ending. The slightest mark on his copybook was rubbed away from my mind by the man himself. As if his tears when his statue was unveiled weren`t sufficiently cleansing. That tiny tick when I sing his name is no longer under my skin. Whilst I`ll probably roll my eyes at Swansea on Sunday as everyone is yells for his introduction when we`re not 3-0 up after ten minutes, I can swoon and fully commit myself to the cult of Henry. Which is as it should be, for a player of his extraordinary talents and feats. I`d hesitate to describe a goal as beautifully romantic as that as a purging, but it was- for him and me.
People often ask how I have the forbearance to attend every game. Well, night`s like last night showed why. When you stick around it for enough years and you penetrate the hype of Sky`s 'Super, Mega, Ultra Sunday`, you see that every game is a potential classic. Every match a potential soap opera. And every game has a potential storyline that just lifts you up and takes you away. That gifts you the sort of moments that can make you smile at your desk, despite the chronic lack of sleep. It`s true you have to wade through some mediocre fare to get them, but when you do, it makes every second worth it. Life doesn`t give you many moments like that. But if you stick around long enough, football will give you plenty.
On the face of it and to the uninitiated, a 1-0 win 3rd Round Cup win over lower league opposition on a Monday evening has no right to produce such emotion. But it does. And there`s no explaining or rationalising it. You either get it or you don`t. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 39.COQUELIN (56.Yennaris `39), 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 49.MIQUEL, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA©, 16.RAMSEY, 15.CHAMBERLAIN (14.Walcott `68), 23.ARSHAVIN, 29.CHAMAKH (12.Henry `68). Unused: 9.J-Y.Park, 30.Benayoun, 31.Ro, 59.Martinez.
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