Sport

Can Arsenal be certain of FA Cup victory?

It has been a curious season for the red and white half of North London. Reeling like drunken shambles in the first half of the campaign, with opaque tactics and a chronic lack of defenders, Arsene Wenger’s men have arguably been the best side in the country of 2015. Since losing to Southampton at the turn of the year, the Gunners have won 11 out of 12 league games and have a squad that is capable of matching the oligarchs of Chelsea and Manchester City.

Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean pocket rocket, has been one of the players of the season, while the underrated Olivier Giroud continuously improves. Meanwhile, the much-maligned Mesut Ozil is finally showing the form that convinced the club to shell out a club record £42.5m on him (and no Michael Owen, Raheem Sterling is not better than him and any attempt to pretend otherwise is utter bollocks). They are firmly on course to claim a Champions League place for an 18th successive season and will look to retain the FA Cup on the 30th May (which also happens to be Steven Gerrard’s birthday, in case you didn’t know). That can’t be bad.

And yet…the nagging feeling persists that this side has untapped potential ready to be unleashed, and is just a final push away from reaching the promised land in the league and Europe. This was meant to be the year of a serious title challenge, the year when Arsenal, with the proverbial trophy monkey off their backs courtesy of their dramatic FA Cup win against Hull City, were finally free to tap into the financial potential their stadium move was supposed to bring about. The Gunners were finally supposed to be mixing it at the top end again. Yet, their title race was over before it had even begun, and a typically underwhelming Champions League first leg against Monaco means that the record is stuck on repeat at the Emirates.

Even the FA Cup is far from in the bag. At the risk of trotting out the usual nauseating clichés about plucky underdogs, the competition’s penchant for the unexpected is well documented. Aston Villa’s victory over Liverpool was no fluke, but a carefully planned and meticulously organised feat, masterminded by Tim Sherwood – often dismissed as a buffoon, but one who nonetheless appears to have revitalised the club in the short term.

Few Arsenal fans will be taking anything for granted, having learnt through painful experience that “it ain’t over til its over”. Even last season, when the semi-final draw opened up the possibility of Hull City, Wigan Athletic and Sheffield United, the overwhelming feeling was best expressed as “How can we fuck this up now?” The gifting of trophies to so-called inferior opponents is written in the club’s DNA. Leaving aside Laurent Koscielny’s air-kick against Birmingham in 2011, clubs such as Swindon and Luton have both snatched trophies from under the Gunners noses, in 1969 and 1988 respectively (and both incidentally are the only trophies in both those clubs’ histories).

This Arsenal side has shown more resilience and nous than the so-called “Fabregas” generation. Gone are flimsy liabilities such as Denilson and Emmanuel Eboue, and the grinding out of victories away at the two Manchester clubs this season has demonstrated a new found tactical nous. However, the exploding clown’s car element of self-implosion is never far away from Arsenal and their fans will greet May 30th with trepidation as well as anticipation.

It seems churlish for Arsenal fans to complain too much. After a nine-year trophy drought, they are starting to rediscover the winning habit again. This is undoubtedly the strongest side Arsene Wenger has built since Henry and Bergkamp were in their pomp. The foundations for greatness are there – the question is whether Messrs Sanchez and Ozil can push on and reach the summit.

28/04/2015

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