Before I start, let me congratulate Birmingham. I suspect a lot of their fans will be reading articles from every angle in order to soak up their glorious day, and that includes Arsenal blogs. At the end of the day, they were the better team and fully deserved their victory. They were dead on their feet at the end, precisely as you should be, and did not win by roughing us up or playing outside the law. They hassled and harried for ninety minutes, never gave up, and got their rewards. Fair play.
But I’m not a Birmingham fan, so even typing those words is painful. Six years without a trophy was supposed to end today, and that isn’t some arrogant dismissal of Birmingham – the simple fact is that we were heavy favourites and had we played as well as we have in recent games we’d be celebrating the barren run coming to an end. That it didn’t happen is bad enough – losing any cup final is a horrible experience – but the manner of the defeat made it a hundred times worse. Koscielny and Szczesny, two of our best performers in recent times, will be having nightmares about the winning goal, which came so late that there could be no response.
Forget that this was supposed to be a stepping stone, a platform for bigger and better things. That notion is utterly irrelevant, and far more disrespectful to the Carling Cup than any team selection. It was a cup final, a chance for silverware, and we blew it in the final moments. Birmingham were not threatening to score anymore – they were shattered, heavy-legged and hanging on, and we were moments from putting them through another half an hour, where surely our superior fitness would have given us the crucial advantage. But their resilience was keeping them in it, and when they sent forward another clearance, Zigic won yet another flick on. The header seemed harmless enough, dropping towards keeper and defender, but Koscielny made to clear it before pulling out at the last second, and Szczesny was sufficiently put off to fumble the ball sideways, where Martins, on as a fresh substitute and eager for scraps, was waiting for the simple tap in. Half the stadium went ballistic, the other half collapsed in despair. The game was up, and we knew it.
At the end, you could see how much the defeat hurt – the players were distraught, not least Jack Wilshere, who broke down in tears at the final whistle. His time will come, no doubt about it, but ironically it is on his young shoulders that a huge burden now sits – he is exactly the type of driven character we need to help pick the team off the floor and keep fighting. We are still in three competitions but within a few weeks, we could be out of them all if we allow this to linger. On the other hand, a positive, anger-fuelled reaction could lead us to other trophies before the season is up. Wallowing is not an option.
It was an attritional game from start to finish. We didn’t play particularly well in the first half, and were somewhat fortunate to be level at the break. Within a couple of minutes, Bowyer was sent through and Szczesny took him out in the area, before being saved by an erroneous offside flag. A penalty it most certainly was, but a red card would have been wrong, in my opinion, as Bowyer was heading away from goal and two defenders had the time to cover on the line. I’m not saying Mike Dean wouldn’t have sent him off, just that if he had, I would’ve considered it a mistake. Either way, it was a massive let off.
At the other end, we were creating half chances – Arshavin spun and shot at Foster, before Djourou missed a free header from a corner. Otherwise, we couldn’t get out of the centre third – Birmingham were controlling the ball and hassling us successfully when we had it, and they got their reward when Zigic nodded past Szczesny after a corner had been headed back into the danger area. It was poor defending – Zigic had three men around him but no-one marking him or standing between him and the ball – as soon as we saw it landing on his head, we knew there was only to be one outcome.
In fairness, our response was decent – Van Persie nearly provided an instant riposte when his header from Sagna’s cross floated just wide, but Birmingham were still threatening at the other end, and nearly doubled their lead when Zigic was found with space in the area. Fortunately, the giant isn’t as good on the ground and took enough time to get the ball out of his feet for Szczesny to close him down and make an excellent smother. It seemed a critical moment, even more so when we levelled just five minutes later. A fine counter attack saw Wilshere crack a terrific effort off the bar, and when the ball came back to Arshavin, he make space for himself before clipping the ball back to Van Persie, who expertly volleyed home with his chocolate leg. It was a stunning effort, but it came at a heavy price – challenged by a defender at the same moment as striking the ball, he appeared to jar his knee and would eventually be forced off. There are rumours that he might have ligament damage, but we have to wait for confirmation.
After struggling for most of the first half, we ended it in the ascendancy – Nasri stung Foster’s fingers from range, and Birmingham were getting tetchy, Larsson booked for dissent as they came under pressure for the first time. We knew we had to up the pace in the second half, but somehow it didn’t happen – we created fleeting chances, but never forced Foster into top saves, only routine ones. He made plenty – Nasri had a couple of long range efforts turned away, while Bendtner and Rosicky were also denied – but they were all saves you would expect him to make. Meanwhile, Birmingham can rightly claim to have come far closer to scoring when Fahey lashed a shot against the inside of the post.
As the minutes ticked away, extra time seemed inevitable, and with Birmingham players cramping, it seemed an opportunity to turn the screw. But as minds turned to the additional half an hour, we made one horrendous mistake, and the cup was gone.
It is very easy to start pointing fingers, especially as both goals were defensive lapses, but at the end of the day this was a cup final, and nerves can make even the best players make stupid mistakes or daft decisions. It happens, and until we start winning silverware, that tentativeness will always be a threat. We all know that trophies come in bursts, and while it was hoped this would be the first of ours, it wasn’t to be. It hurts like hell, for us, for the players, for the manager, but this is not the time for recriminations. We don’t have time for that, as much as anything.
Predictably, however, there are those that cannot take disappointment without calling for half the team to be sold and Wenger to be sacked. To them, the fact these players were good enough to beat Barcelona ten days ago is irrelevant, as is the fact we even made it to the final. I’ve heard numerous people claim Koscielny is a waste of space, which is frankly moronic – the guy has been superb in recent times, and was an absolute rock against Barcelona. Yes, he has made a few mistakes this season but is improving rapidly. I listen to people talking about how he should be replaced, how Szczesny should be shipped out for Given (yes, really) and I wonder how many brain cells they’ve got between them. I can only imagine how it frustrates the manager.
But what really bugs me is that this presents more ammunition for the pundits who love to harp on about how long it has been since we lifted a trophy. Prior to the match, the BBC showed a great interview with Wenger, where he explained how he rejected the clamour to spend millions on a keeper because he knew it would set Szczesny back, and even the most anti-Arsenal pundits (that’ll be Alan Hansen) credited him for it, before saying that we could dominate English football for the next five years.
Ninety minutes of football later, and all that changed, in their minds at least. Suddenly we had reverted to having no leaders, no keeper and no commanding centre back. Wenger’s only option was to buy, buy, buy. This from paid analysts who two hours earlier were acknowledging that while the policy caused short term frustration, it was perfect in the long run and would lead to us becoming England’s top club. Fickleness knows no bounds.
The internet is awash with reactionary nonsense, no more so than after a painful defeat. But we’re in this together – players, manager, staff, fans, everyone is gutted tonight. But it is done – what matters now is the reaction. Leyton Orient, you’d better be fucking ready.