Arsenal 1 (Walcott 18) Chelsea 2 (Malouda 33, Drogba 84)
(FA Cup Semi Final, Wembley)
The past few days have been filled with stories of our team news, but all boiled down to two questions. One, would Gibbs be fit, and therefore allow Song to play the defensive midfield role he has made his own in recent weeks? And two, who would Arshavin come in for, Nasri or Walcott?
In the end, the answers were irrelevant because the questions themselves were wide of the mark. Song was relegated to the bench, not making an appearance in the entire match while Denilson and Diaby emphasised how critical he has become by playing far below his level, while even more perplexingly, Arshavin only appeared for the final fifteen minutes.
I’m willing to concede that Wenger knows more about the state of his players than I do. Maybe Song was carrying a knock, maybe Arshavin was unwell, I don’t know. But when I saw the team news an hour before the game, I mentioned on Twitter that it looked as if Wenger was going for a defensive approach, preventing Chelsea from playing before utilising our attacking talents.
Big mistake. Our defence may have looked comfortable on Wednesday night, but Chelsea are a different prospect, and aside from Toure we had our reserves out there trying to stop them scoring. All along we’ve known that Chelsea were going to score at some point, so the best approach was surely to attack and try to peg them back – in this case attack was absolutely the best form of defence.
Sure, Denilson was rested, and Diaby, while coming back from an injury, only played a short while in midweek, but leaving out Arshavin was criminal. The guy has shown himself capable of single handedly cutting through the best defences already, and with Chelsea so well organised at the back he was a trump card waiting to be played. Instead, Diaby was selected simply based on his height, which again focused our team on nullifying the opposition rather than playing to our strengths. Because the Russian is one of our greatest strengths, and a rested one at that.
I don’t want to be too critical, that would be churlish after such a wonderful run, and a series of occasions where Wenger has proved us wrong (not least in Song’s progress), but the level of frustration is high tonight simply because this was a glorious opportunity missed.
Even more so after Walcott had given us an early lead. It was actually Chelsea who threatened first, Gibbs clearing off the line after Drogba had won the ball in the air against Fabianski, outside the area, after the Pole had rushed out wildly. My comment at that moment? “Fabianski looks nervous. Fingers crossed if doesn’t make any more mad decisions”. Ouch.
But back to the opening goal – Ade held the ball up, before slipping a neat pass to Gibbs, charging up the left flank. His cross found Walcott, who volleyed without much conviction, but a deflection of the unmentionable one’s hand took it away from Cech, and we were ahead. At that point, we could have gone on – we had plenty of possession in that spell but never offered much going forward, a problem few of us would have predicted before the match.
Slowly, we let Chelsea back into it, a couple of shaky moments in our defence giving them hope – Fabianski completely missed a Malouda shot that squirmed wide, before Chelsea found their equaliser. When it came, it was as sloppy as our opener had been. Malouda chested down a long ball, and with Eboue not tight enough, he easily shifted the ball and beat Fabianski at his near post.
On Setanta, they were roundly critical of the keeper, and he may feel he should’ve done better, but I couldn’t help but feel they went for him more because he’d been so erratic up to that point. Realistically, Malouda should never have been allowed to get his shot away – it was an all round poor goal to concede.
And it nearly got worse moments later. Denilson played a casual ball to Diaby inside our area, but that would’ve been fine had the Frenchman cleared with his first or second touches. But he dallied, Anelka nicked it, and curled a shot against the post. It was us that that welcomed the half time whistle when it came.
In the second half, Chelsea turned on the power. The only chances we managed were from two Walcott crosses, the pair evading diving efforts from Van Persie and Diaby respectively. At the other end, Chelsea were getting closer, Lampard firing wide and Drogba causing general havoc.
But the main problem was our midfield. Someone needs to tell Denilson and Diaby that on some occasions, smashing the ball into row Z is a viable option – the former must have been caught on the ball four times, while Diaby persistently ran into trouble. It gave Chelsea confidence, and with six minutes to go, they finally made us pay – Lampard’s long ball finding Drogba, who outmuscled Silvestre, rounded the onrushing Fabianski, and knocked us out.
Initially, I defended Fabianski for coming out – he had to narrow the angle, but in retrospect, his charge out of goal was almost Manninger-like in its wildness. By coming so far out of his area, he made Drogba’s job easy. That isn’t to say he was the only culprit though – Silvestre was weak in the challenge and shouldn’t have let his man get away so easily.
Mistakes were certainly made for all three goals, and our makeshift backline was exposed as exactly that – makeshift, but errors were not restricted to the eleven players out there. Wenger has to take some criticism for his decisions on the day – first for sending the team out with a negative mindset that was always the wrong way to approach the game, and then for some odd substitutions. The reason for taking Van Persie off has since become clear – he had a groin problem that may keep him out of the Liverpool game, but once one striker had gone, why take Adebayor off? Sure, he was having a quiet game, but that was the case in both legs against Villareal, and on both occasions he popped up with crucial goals.
Moments after Ade was taken off, Drogba scored the winner, and we were left with Bendtner up front on his own trying to rescue the game. Nasri came on with five minutes to go, joining Cesc, Walcott and Arshavin as attacking options, but it was too little too late. Wenger has since talked about the need to rotate his squad, but with Villa drawing again, surely this match was the one to really go for, even if we suffer for it on Tuesday?
As I said earlier, I don’t want to be too critical or negative, because Chelsea were always going to be a tough prospect, but I guess the frustration is borne out of the fact that we could have really gone for them, but instead we played a protective game, exactly the sort of game we aren’t great at, and got punished. After they gifted us an early goal, we had a golden chance of reaching the final, and it feels like we’ve thrown it away by not having the enterprise to go for it.
Tomorrow is another day, and we still have the Champions League to fight for. Perhaps by then we may even have some of our defence back. But today was a chance to reach the FA Cup final again, and we’ve blown it. That we lost doesn’t hurt as much as the fact we went out so meekly.