Stoke 3 (Fuller 2, 78, Whitehead 86) Arsenal 1 (Denilson 42)
(FA Cup Fourth Round)
A trip to Stoke is never an easy proposition, even for a top team at full strength. Given the choice between a weary first team, many carrying niggling injuries, or a younger outfit without the experience of going to places like the Brittania stadium, Wenger opted for the latter. As I covered yesterday, I felt this to be the only sensible choice, but the risk was obvious – a defeat would leave the manager facing the wrath of all those who bemoan rotation in the competition, along with many who feel he simply threw away a golden opportunity of silverware.
A difficult job was made doubly so in the opening moments. Delap’s first attempt at a long throw should have been meat and drink for Fabianski, but he failed to advance the few steps it would have taken to allow him to catch the ball at its highest point. Instead he attempted to take it in his midriff, and a stooping Fuller beat him to it. Poor goalkeeping, and not a great start in his quest to oust Almunia from the first team.
In fairness to the Pole, he handled the rest of Delap’s efforts well, but a few more shaky moments from open play failed to enhance his claim, only giving us an understanding of why Almunia is still the preferred option.
The early goal caused nerves across the backline, Coquelin especially vulnerable at right back (in mitigation – not his favoured position), and Stoke could easily have had a penalty when the referee incorrectly felt Silvestre got a piece of the ball when challenging Fuller. But as the half went on, we got back into the game, controlling the midfield, albeit without creating any clear cut chances.
But by half time, we had found the equaliser. Stoke may quibble about the award of a free kick on the edge of the box – it seemed more ball to hand that a deliberate offence – but they only have themselves to blame for the set piece ending in a goal, completely failing to mark Denilson, who was lurking on the edge of the area in a central position. His shot got a nick, and the unsighted Sorensen didn’t move. 1-1, and all to play for in the second half.
On Twitter, I was busy voicing my displeasure at Martin Atkinson, who summed up everything that Wenger was talking about in his pre-match press conference by allowing Stoke to get away with late tackles, time and time again. I counted seven occasions in the first half alone where a player was taken out after laying the ball off, only for Atkinson to play advantage and move on. I have no problem with the application of the advantage rule (as long as it is an advantage – when two of our players have been hacked to the floor, as in one second half incident, it is less so), but it was a clear tactic to reduce the number of players we had in any one attack, and should have been punished with cards. Sidibe was a particular offender, while Cesc and Vela seemed to be the prime targets.
The worst incident in the first half had me screaming at the screen in frustration. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, playing in an unfamiliar position up front (and doing pretty well, to be fair to him), crossed the half way line, played a decent ball forward, and then attempted to sprint thirty yards to join the attack. For the first twenty of those, he was being blatantly tugged back by a Stoke player, with the referee looking directly at them. As a result, he could not contribute anything more to the move, being too far behind the play. Nothing happened. If that isn’t a booking, what is?
The second half was an even affair – neither side carving many chances out. With no-one wanting a replay, both sides committed more to attack, and we brought our big guns off the bench – Eduardo, Arshavin and Ramsey replacing Coquelin, Thomas, and the disappointing Walcott.
Ironically, it was after the changes that Stoke took control. First Denilson failed to keep pace with Sidibe, whose cross evaded Campbell and Silvestre for Fuller to nod home, and then Whitehead applied the finishing touch after we missed at least three opportunities to clear. While Stoke created little in the game, we managed even less, and can have no complaints about the defeat.
Most will lazily point to Wenger’s reliance on youth as the reason for the cup exit, conveniently missing the fact that when the two critical goals were scored, Campbell, Silvestre, Cesc, Denilson, Ramsey, Arshavin and Eduardo were on the field. Plenty of experience there.
No, the issue was simply that too many played below the standard they are capable of. Silvestre was okay but had wobbly moments, while Campbell made a good impression on his return, but Fabianski reminded us why he isn’t first choice, Cesc was kept quiet, Denilson was poor, and Walcott and Vela continued their poor seasons. Both have a lot of work to do over the next few months – Walcott to stay fit and get his confidence back, and Vela to start coping with the physical demands of top flight football.
Wenger will be disappointed tonight – his selection of Cesc, probably our most important player in the matches ahead, showed that despite what the press will inevitably write, he really wanted to win the tie, but felt that after a double header with Bolton, there were some that would struggle against a fresher Stoke. He tried out some other options, and they didn’t step up. Post-match, he explained his position:
“If you rotate and you don’t win it is your fault so I can only stand up and say that is the team I picked. We have 10 injuries and we are going into a period where we cannot rotate a lot in the big games.”
“Sagna, Vermaelen and Clichy will all be back for Aston Villa and they could have missed it if they had played today.”
Bear in mind that at Villa, Martin O’Neill is getting a load of stick for not rotating, and many of their fans believe that, as a result, their season will collapse as last year’s did.
So the cup is over for another season. As it turns out, we would have faced City away in the next round, immediately after the visit of Liverpool, and days before a trip to Porto. Had we progressed, we may have seen the Carling Cup exit repeated. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise.
It has not been a good day. The cup was a real opportunity for silverware, but no more. Had we had less injuries, the likes of Eduardo, Ramsey and Bendtner would have started as they would not be getting much Premiership time, but unfortunately we are not in that position. We can only hope that this will ease the fixture list to an extent that if we are still in the hunt after the next four league games, we can capitalise.
At least we got further than Liverpool or United. And lost to Premiership opposition.