Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1
In the intervening twelve years since my last visit to Valley Parade, Bradford`s fortunes have gone somewhat south. Having overstretched following last ditch survival in the Premier League in 2000, a tumble down the divisions has meant that Barnet has been the only North London outfit visiting their refurbished stadium regularly. But in cup ties, all opponents begin as equals. Hard as it is for us to stomach this morning, that`s the beauty and attraction of it.
We left a frosty London at around 1pm looking to arrive in one of Bradford`s plentiful real ale pubs for around 5pm. Alas, the M62 had other ideas so we had to settle for a parking space and a sandwich at around 6.30pm. Pre match I had the fortune to meet with the esteemed editor of this here parish and his young lad, attending his first ever Arsenal game. At least they can only get better for him from this point. We arrived in the stadium to see that Arsene had picked virtually his strongest side. I think he did err in selecting possibly the narrowest front three he could conceivably have picked. Podolski and Ramsey were hardly going to stretch play against a Bradford side whose game plan would have involved narrowing Arsenal`s attack as much as possible. But really, it should have been a minor detail.
In the match preview I wrote that Arsenal would have to weather a storm in the first 15 minutes and that, if they did so, they should then be able to impose themselves on the game. That storm duly arrived and kept Vermaelen and Mertesacker plenty busy in the opening stages. Szczesny palmed Wells` shot away in the 6th minute and then rushed out Bob Wilson like at the feet of Hanson to fend off a one on one opportunity. Vermaelen ought to have done better when he headed Cazorla`s corner over the bar. But on 16 minutes, Vermaelen conceded a very soft foul next to the corner flag with Hanson rather touching the ball beyond the Belgian before flinging himself to the floor. I looked at the scoreboard and saw 15 minutes on the clock. "Keep this out and we`ve hit that watershed," I thought to myself.
Gary Jones whipped the free kick into the six yard area, it grazed Vermaelen`s head, but Thompson was lurking at the back post to volley the ball into the roof of Szczesny`s net. Going a goal down makes any game harder but giving opponents who were always going to commit every drop of sweat for the cause was bordering criminal. The manager even identified set-pieces as the Bantams` strength before the game. Arsenal, for their part, were being too cute and too clever in midfield. Cazorla was all tricks and flicks and prissy one touch passes back to the centre halves when Bradford were just begging to be run at. Very uncharacteristically by his standards, I think Wilshere bottled more 50-50s last night than in his entire career to date.
Arsenal were constantly being pushed out wide and Sagna and Gibbs were persistently left with very little option to hit in the penalty area. Voluntarily playing so narrowly against two banks of four always seemed like a risky decision, but the movement from the centre forwards was non-existent. Arsenal don`t have much upfront and we have even less creativity for the forwards we do have. It`s at the heart of what has made us so uninspiring this season. That Kieran Gibbs provided our biggest goal threat over 120 minutes is instructive. He hit a dipping volley which flew just wide of Matt Duke`s post.
After much huffing and puffing, Arsenal did eventually look as though they`d broken Bradford down. Wilshere slipped Gibbs into the left channel and Jack`s low cross found Gervinho inside the six yard box who somehow contrived to miss an open goal. Credit to him though, it was harder to miss that chance than score so it was quite a feat to put it wide. He literally could have just stood there and let it hit his legs and it would have gone in, so to divert it wide showed a quite special brand of incompetence. Prior to that Coquelin's low drive from the edge of the area smacked the base of the Bradford post as Arsenal began to dominate possession, But again, they found it difficult to create clear cut chances against well organised opponents.
That said, Arsenal might well have been 2-0 down on the stroke of half time when a long ball was flicked on by Nathan Doyle, he found Nahki Wells whose toe ended finish looked to be creeping inside the post but dribbled agonisingly wide. You felt something had to change in the second half, but not much did really. We probably had even more of the ball as Bradford looked to soak up pressure and hit us on the break. That`s not to say we did an awful lot more with it. Cazorla`s pull back found Ramsey, who sliced a shot wide. Ramsey then received a painful blow to the face but elected to play on, despite initially leaving the pitch staggering like a baby donkey. Whatever you think of that boy`s quality, he never, ever hides.
Arsenal huffed and puffed but couldn`t blow the house down. They brought on Chamakh for Coquelin, but the Moroccan operates with a carefully nursed allergy to the penalty area, so we might just as well have put the blow up doll Bradford fans were circulating in the Kop End upfront. (It also has to be said, just before half time Coquelin visibly flounced when Vermaelen asked him to correct his position for a Bradford goal kick). Rosicky and Chamberlain were introduced and instantly, our approach play had more purpose and zip. Rosicky combined with Chamberlain on the right; Oxlade`s shot was palmed away by Duke.
Rosicky`s introduction brought vigour to Arsenal`s midfield. Finally, Cazorla and Wilshere had a sounding board between the lines of Bradford`s defence and midfield. If only we`d had a striker beyond Rosicky the story might have been different. Arsenal toiled unattractively until the 88th minute. Cazorla`s original corner was cleared straight back to the diminutive Spaniard`s feet. He sent another floated cross to the back post for Thomas Vermaelen to head home from close range. Arsenal redoubled their efforts as Cazorla`s shot was beaten away by Duke. Then Cazorla`s free kick was clawed away by Duke, Gervinho hunted the rebound but Meredith was on hand to clear.
The full time whistle sounded to ensure extra time and you felt Arsenal`s superior fitness at the very least would come through. Sure enough, Arsenal must have had the ball for at least 20 of the 30 minutes of extra time. Gibbs` near post shot was beaten out by Duke. Then Wilshere seemed to have dribbled through the Bantams defence to put himself through one on one with the keeper, from six yards out, with the goal at his mercy. But he wouldn`t take the shot, preferring instead to move to the touchline in an attempt to get the ball on his left foot. A professional footballer, with that amount of talent didn`t back himself to be able to hit a ball six yards on his weak foot. An utter f*****g shambles.
I struggle to decipher which miss showed a more staggering level of incompetence. Gervinho spooning the ball wide from point blank range, or the guy that wouldn`t even try to shoot from point blank rage because he didn`t think he could kick it that far on his right foot. Podolski missed a sitter for similar reasons against West Brom on Saturday. I say it`s time to make these guys train with a plimsoll on their strong foot, a football boot on their weak foot. It`s staggering that somebody that plays football seven days a week would pass up a chance from spitting distance against a League Two keeper because of such a fixable weakness. Imagine if Roger Federer decided he didn`t feel comfortable on his back hand and instead decided to try and shift his body for a forehand every single time the return ball didn`t meet his specifications.
Arsenal continued to pour forwards in the second half of extra time, but just could not break Bradford down. Cazorla`s dipping left foot shot from twenty five yards clanked the crossbar. Against opposition three divisions below you, you shouldn`t really need it to be "your night", but in many ways it kind of wasn`t. The Bantams fans cheered wildly as the final whistle sounded. They had won their last eight shootouts, but the Gunners had won their last five. Something had to give. Cazorla stepped up first but Duke saved his weak effort. Bradford converted before Chamakh`s effort hit the post. The home side were well in control having buried their first two efforts. But Szczesny steeled himself, showing the sort of winner`s mentality that will surely see him seek his fortune elsewhere soon enough.
He first saved from Darby, leaving Wilshere to tuck his penalty away, followed by Connell and Chamberlain. Then when Ritchie Jones had the chance to win the shootout for the home side again, Szczesny flexed his muscle to beat the ball away. The three youngest players in our side had pulled us back into the shootout. Vermaelen stepped up, but his spot kick smacked the inside of the post and bounced out. It was harsh on the captain, who had scored the late equaliser, been the first to approach Cazorla following his miss and volunteered the fifth penalty. We drove him disconsolately in the cold with the cheers still audible from the stadium as we walked towards the car.
Ultimately, though what little fortune there was to be had wasn`t with us, it shouldn`t have mattered given the opposition. Not that I expected an easy game, but an Arsenal side that dominated territorially for most of the 120 minutes ought to have been able to trouble City more than they did. It`s come to the stage where even League Two sides can stunt us if they just sit two banks of four on the edge of their area. It`s a hurtful loss in what represented our best chance of silverware this season. To lose a game such as this and feel that there was little to no injustice in the result begs questions. Objectively, had we lost to Premiership opposition in such a manner you might have said that it just wasn`t our night. But such mitigation doesn`t really stand up given the opposition. We`re the first to point to the resources of those above us as a reason for not competing, so it works both ways. Whatever the holes in the squad, it`s better than Midtable and it`s good enough to beat Bradford City. This season has brought us more below par performances than convincing ones, which raises uncomfortable questions indeed. LD.
BRADFORD CITY: 12.DUKE, 2.DARBY, 14.McHUGH, 5.MacARDLE, 3.MEREDITH, 11.THOMPSON (8.R.Jones `72), 17.ATKINSON (24.Turgot `92), 7.DOYLE, 18.G.JONES(c), 10.HANSON, 9.WELLS (17.Connell `74). Unused: 1.McLaughlin, 16.Hines, 24.Ravenhill, 26.Good.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN(c), 28.GIBBS, 22.COQUELIN (29.Chamakh `60), 10.WILSHERE, 19.S.CAZORLA, 16.RAMSEY (7.Rosicky `69), 9.PODOLSKI (15.Chamberlain `69), 27.GERVINHO. Unused: 8.Arteta, 18.Squillaci, 24.Mannone, 25.Jenkinson.