Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 2
With the two Manchester clubs out of the competition, the feeling is that the F.A. Cup is a very realistic chance of silverware for most of the Premiership sides that remain. For Arsenal, the sense is palpable that the tournament represents our best chance of silverware. That coupled with the nightmarish run of three straight defeats in the league added to the air of win or bust. It showed on Arsene`s teamsheet as well, the goalkeeper aside, he selected the strongest side available to him. Villa, for their part, had a midfield that included the thoughtfulness of Stephen Ireland and the pace of Agbonlahor to support the strike force of Keane and Bent. They had taken Chelsea apart on the counter attack at Stamford Bridge over Christmas and their plan was clearly to enact the same strategy here. For a time, it looked like working.
Arsenal though, started the brighter and Shay Given was called into action after just five minutes as van Persie touched a short free kick to Vermaelen. The Belgian pulled back the hammer and unleashed a fulminating drive, which Given showed impeccable reactions to turn over the bar. It was a wonder his hand stayed connected to his arm in the process. Tomas Rosicky was turning in another fine performance in central midfield and his sliding through ball found Theo Walcott. Walcott powered through the lunge of Warnock before slashing the ball wider with Ramsey and van Persie superior options in the area.
There`s a sense that Theo`s brain just doesn`t adapt quickly enough to situations. He seems to make his mind up as soon as he receives the ball and he`s never able to adapt his thinking to the situation. If he`s decided to pass the ball 5 seconds before he`s clean through on goal, he does that regardless. Same with his shooting, if he`s decided he`s going to shoot, he will regardless of any better option that presents itself. But Villa were finding Arsenal`s one dimensional approach pretty easy to deal with. People have been quick to jump on Ramsey`s form, but every time he gets the ball, it seems he only has van Persie to hit.
Villa were soon piling on the trouble for Arsenal and took the lead. A sort corner saw the Gunners totally fall asleep, as only Ramsey reacted, leaving him two on one with Petrov and Keane. Petrov was able to work the ball back to Keane and clip a cross to the back post for Richard Dunne to head Villa into the lead. It was a poor goal to concede with a lack of concentration our undoing and Fabianski mustering all the presence of a matchstick man in his six yard area. Arsenal toiled rather ineffectively for an equaliser. Ramsey, one of the Gunners` better performers, jinked his way round Hutton on the by line, but was again presented with a lack of penalty area options, resulting in Given smothering his attempt from a tight angle.
Arsenal worked another short free kick, this time van Persie teeing up Chamberlain, whose drive was saved by Given. But Arsenal were severely lacking in ideas and were soon harshly two goals down. Villa broke from the edge of their own area, Stephen Ireland played an angled through ball to Darren Bent, Fabianski was equal to his first effort, but such is Arsenal`s luck that Vermaelen slipped as the rebound slipped out straight to Bent`s feet and he squeezed home from a tight angle seconds before half time. Arsenal had been uninspired and a little aimless, but did not deserve to be two goals down. Nevertheless, given the run of form we are in, I had barely considered the possibility of a comeback.
Arsene was very guarded about what was said in the dressing room at half time, refusing to disclose anything other than, "You can either feel sorry for yourself or show you have the qualities needed to play at this football club." Happily, the team chose the latter and had Villa under pressure instantly. Vermaelen hit a swerving shot wide, whilst Ramsey could only toe end the ball straight at Given inside the box. Van Persie`s corner was then headed goalwards by Mertesacker, only to see Ireland deny him on the line. Arsenal were taking the game to their visitors with a much more direct approach and it was that that yielded their lifeline. Aaron Ramsey powered onto Song`s through ball, leaving the already booked Richard Dunne to scythe him down in the area. Van Persie stepped up and demonstrated a cool head to slot the penalty to Given`s right.
Three minutes later and Arsenal were level. Walcott danced past Warnock on the by line with a feint that had the Villa left back sprawling, Theo tried to toe end the ball beyond Given from a tight angle, Alan Hutton was there to clear off the line, but he could only smash the ball straight at Walcott`s chest causing it to fly into the net. It was the sort of luck that had been deserting us to this point in 2012. Arsenal had their tails up and to reflect their dominance, it was Gunners centre half Laurent Koscielny who charged into the Villa area and Villa striker Darren Bent desperately clamouring back to tackle. In his desperation, Bent took Koscielny down and Arsenal had another penalty. Given some of the incidents of the last month, I was beginning to wonder if we`d get a penalty ever again. But with our direct running and a referee that didn`t have excrement in his eyes for a change, we were awarded two in seven minutes.
The captain stepped up and smashed to Given`s left this time for his 25th of the season. In a nice moment of completeness, Arsenal`s number 10 goes level as Arsenal`s tenth top goalscorer of all time with his compatriot Dennis Bergkamp- possibly the club`s most famous ever inhabitant of that shirt. The home side had turned the game around in just seven minutes. The only worry came that we had performed the miracle too early! Van Persie almost completed a hat trick when he met Walcott`s cutback with a right foot shot that flew just over. But the fatigue began to tell in an edgy last ten minutes.
First of all when Ciaran Clark met Ireland`s cross with a glancing header that, thankfully, went straight to Fabianski. A yard either side and a certain goal would have ensued. Ireland also ought to have done better when he collected Hutton`s diagonal pass in space in the area, but bafflingly elected not to shoot and instead found himself dispossessed trying to cut onto his right foot. But Arsenal held out for a quite terrific turnaround. To have performed such a comeback on the back of three straight defeats is very commendable and will hopefully serve as a springboard to win the competition and to revitalise an ailing season. It`s true we were served some fortune in the second half but it was due and I am a strong believer that fortune, such as it is, is almost always forced. If you`ve got a good forward momentum, you`re more likely to force your opponents into mistakes.
McLeish has tried to make an issue of an alleged van Persie elbow. I must confess I`ve not seen the incident back, at the time it didn`t strike me as anything at all, but I may be wrong. But McLeish`s hypocrisy when one glances over tirades such as this when Lee Bowyer trod on Bacary Sagna last year, or when he offered Alan Hutton the mealy mouthed defence that "he can hardly stop himself in mid air" after one of his scythes injured Shane Long, one can reasonably put forward the riposte, "Oh shut up, you peanut faced ballbag." After all, van Persie, like Martin Taylor is not that type of player and he can hardly stop his elbow in mid air. But whilst McLeish attempts to deflect the focus, Arsenal are in Round 5 with a trip to the North East in the offing. The competition remains very winnable. LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 39.COQUELIN, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 17.SONG, 7.ROSICKY (8.Arteta `71), 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (3.Sagna `88), 15.CHAMBERLAIN (12.Henry `88), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 9.J-Y.Park, 13.Szczesny, 23.Arshavin, 30.Benayoun.