Swansea City 2 Arsenal 2
The F.A. Cup represents a great chance, not only of a trophy for Arsenal, but for the travelling fan to furrow new ploughs of the footballing geography that have been erstwhile unexplored. Drawing Swansea City away did little to furnish either of those idle fantasies. Fortunately, despite the rails being in a fit of engineering work pique, there was just one train to Swansea which we duly managed to snap up shortly after the TV preferences for the 3rd Round were announced. Memories of Swansea`s expert victory at the Emirates were fresh in minds when the draw was made, which had led some to declare us underdogs for the tie. I wasn`t so sure.
After a slightly convoluted 4 hour train journey, we arrived in Wales to discover that Swansea, with a League Cup semi final on the horizon, had elected to rest some of their big guns. Arsenal brought Mertesacker back into the defence, resting Thomas Vermaelen, whilst Aaron Ramsey replaced Lukas Podolski on the right. Surely in deference to Swansea utilising their flanks so effectively through Routledge and Dyer the last time Arsenal visited the Liberty Stadium. Confidence was cautiously high as we took our seats in the Croeso Stand. However, the first half seemed to show the ponderous, impotent Arsenal we have seen so much of this year, that has struggled to create problems for teams.
The first period was a rather dire affair in truth. What little of interest occurred was generally created by a direct Swansea side. Dwight Tiendalli played a curving ball over the top of the Arsenal defence, Danny Graham held off Mertesacker- who had an uncharacteristically poor game- but Szczesny beat his effort away. Arsenal briefly flickered with intent when Ramsey ducked inside Bartley in the box, but had the ball taken off of his toes by Ben Davies in the area. Ex Arsenal centre half Kyle Bartley headed Nathan Dyer`s corner against the crossbar, but that was largely it for a cumbersome first half.
Having been in this situation many times this season; I began to doubt Arsenal`s ability to take hold of the game and muster a threat. The very encouraging and positive sign, is that they managed to step up a gear. The passing became crisper and the threat less diluted. The small regret was that Bacary Sagna was so often left outnumbered on the right hand side with Walcott basically playing as a striker alongside Giroud. Too often Sagna was left staring down the barrel of a pair of Swansea defenders with no out ball. Giroud brought Vorm into the game for the first time when he smashed Walcott`s pass towards goal. The same player also saw an excellent first time volley turned away by the Dutch keeper from Wilshere`s cross.
Aaron Ramsey appeared to have been tripped directly in front of me in the box by Tiendalli. An accidental tangle of legs for sure, but a foul nonetheless. Regrettably, ITV`s woeful highlights package didn`t deem the incident worthy of replay yesterday evening, so I`m left rather stuck at my initial impression of a foul. Sensing that Arsenal were beginning to pin Swansea back, Laudrup introduced Michu and Hernandez from the bench. The impact of the former was instant. As Arsenal pressed, Swansea cleared the danger and Mertesacker was caught in two minds as the ball bounced between he and Michu. The Spaniard looped the ball over the Gunners defender`s head and made a beeline for goal. He managed to hold off Arteta and Sagna before coolly slotting under Szczesny. It was a bitter pill against the run of play.
But Arsenal`s response was positive. They continued to hunt in packs for the ball and press Swansea back, which also caused the home side to look unusually disturbed when they did have possession. Ramsey danced past Tiendalli next to the corner flag and delivered a delightful left wing cross which drifted beautifully onto the head of Olivier Giroud. But he lost his bearings and was probably too deliberate in his finish, heading wide as he did in his quest to find the far corner. It also confounded a large section of fans who had already begun to berate Ramsey for the crime of being on the ball next to the corner flag. Walcott also ought to have equalised when Arsenal`s pressing of Swansea caused Bartley to misplace the ball inside the area. It was begging for a first time stroke of the boot from Walcott, but he took a touch to his right before seeking out the far corner. Again, his calculations were amiss and he sent the ball wide.
Arsene sent on Podolski for Ramsey. "I`m not sure he`s one to change a game," Lord Lowe confided. "But if he gets a chance, he`ll bury it" my reply. Podolski does have a tendency to drift out of games, but he`s our best finisher and this was a period of the game where we were creating chances. It proved to be a canny substitution. It also showed the value of having a good attacking option on your bench to swing a game for you. Walcott`s overhit corner was salvaged when Bacary Sagna strained every sinew of his neck to head the ball back into danger from the far post. Koscielny showed similar tenacity to track the loose ball. He hooked it hopefully back into the area and it fell nicely for the undetected Podolski. The German spun and diverted into the corner of Michel Vorm`s goal. Arsenal were back in the hat for the 4th round.
This time it was Lord Lowe`s turn for quasi prophecy. As Arsenal built an attack down the left, Gibbs took the ball. "I think Gibbs has been the best player on the pitch today." Doubtless spurred by those words, Gibbs played a pass into Giroud, the Frenchman dinked a return pass over the head of Tiandelli and Gibbs replied with a full toss smash into the roof of the Swansea net. Pandemonium in the away end. "Just don`t do anything stupid now!" my cautious cry. Alas, it was beyond Arsenal. I`d written in the week in my arseblog column that Arsenal seem to veer between creative drought and helter skelter contests. A high octane pressing game had brought Arsenal back into the game and produced some goals; but it also made us defensively porous and vulnerable. It`s been a season long battle with balance that we haven`t been able to win.
Swansea were awarded a corner after Dyer`s shot was deflected over the bar. The corner was only partially cleared and, lamentably, Agustien was able to pick a pass inside a crowded penalty area to Danny Graham, who had time to control the ball and lift it into Szczesny`s net unchallenged. Neither Arteta nor Sagna will look at the goal very fondly. What was clear subsequently was that neither side particularly fancied a replay. Tiendalli ducked inside of Koscielny in the area, but could only drive the ball into the side netting. Whilst at the other end, Koscielny headed Walcott`s corner (Walcott wasted about 30 seconds shooing the primed Arteta away from the corner with time scares. Theo is a young man playing with his own priorities in mind at the expense of all else at the moment) straight at Vorm, but had the presence of mind to follow the rebound in, but he could only hook it over.
In the end, I`ll take the replay. Though Swansea at home is still a tough assignment, as we discovered in December, it gives us a better chance of progression than the original draw. Brighton await should we take the replay with due diligence against a side who also have many games in January. Let`s just hope Swansea are still in touch with Chelsea ahead of the League Cup semi final 2nd Leg, that may govern how seriously they take the tie too. For now, it`s clear we`re going to have to utilise the squad in January to its full extent. But we remain in the hat, even if the feelings are mixed with the result. It was a huge positive that we were able to lift the tempo of the game in the second half, but individual errors seem to blight us in every game that we demonstrate attacking intent. We`ll need to find that balance and quickly. LD.
SWANSEA CITY: 1.VORM, 22.TIENDALI, 4.CHICO FLORES, 2.BARTLEY, 33.DAVIES, 7.BRITTON (26.Agustien `69), 20.DE GUZMAN (11.Hernandez `58), 19.YEUNG-KI, 15.ROUTLEDGE (9.Michu `58), 12.DYER, 10.GRAHAM. Unused: 6.Monk, 27.Tremell, 17.Shechter, 25.Rangel.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS, 8.ARTETA (c), 10.WILSHERE, 19.S.CAZORLA, 14.WALCOTT, 16.RAMSEY (9.Podolski `73), 12.GIROUD. Unused: 5.Vermaelen, 7.Rosicky, 11.A.Santos, 22.Coquelin, 36.Martinez.