Deserved Finalists – An Extensive Review of Arsenal’s Road to the FA Cup Final

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Arsenal have been unlucky when drawing teams in competitions in the past few years. This season was no different. The Champions league matched them up against Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Marseille which was dubbed the ‘Group of Death.’ A week before they were drawn against Bayern Munich for a second time in 2 seasons, a North London Derby was thrust upon them for the 3rd round of the FA Cup. In a competition where anything is possible and so much was at stake, Arsenal needed to be at the top of their game. Tottenham were clearly not going to win any other trophy, so beating the old enemy was their only chance to fight for something.

After all the nerves, all the banter and all the talk about how Spurs would keep their trophy drought going, Arsenal showed the world that North London has and always will be Red. It was as comfortable a game as you would expect in a 3rd round tie, where the Gunners completely overpowered Tottenham in every position. Theo Walcott played as the lone striker with a domineering performance in what would be his last game of the season. Tottenham had a few early chances but Fabianski showed he was not going to be beaten on the night. The first goal came from the dashing run of young Serge Gnabry who proved he can handle the pressure in a big game. He laid the assist to Santi Cazorla who slotted it home with perfection. From then on it was all Arsenal as Tottenham didn’t get another sniff of goal. 15 minutes into the second half Arsenal’s oldest yet most vibrant player showed his everlasting class as he stole the ball from Danny Rose on the halfway line and carried it with blistering pace towards goal and chipped it over Hugo Lloris. It was a bittersweet night for Arsenal as Theo Walcott injured his cruciate ligament which would sideline him for up to 8 months. Though, this caused the most memorable event of the night when Theo was stretchered off near the Tottenham end. The verbal abuse and coin throwing gave him the idea to give a 2-0 gesture to the away fans, much to their dismay. An act which secures Theo’s place in Arsenal folklore.

The next rounds draw was a little easier as Arsenal were drawn against League One side Coventry City. Arsenal fans saw it as an easy tie which could give younger players a chance in the first team. Once again Serge Gnabry started and so did Arsenal’s second choice striker Nicklas Bendtner, giving Giroud a well earned rest. Arsenal was too strong for the League One side, scoring twice in the first half hour, courtesy of a brace from Lukas Podolski.  The second half allowed for the debut of promising midfielder Gedion Zelalem, who wasn’t even born when Arsene Wenger took charge of the North London club. Olivier Giroud came on to score his 13th goal of the season and Santi Cazorla added a 4th to put the icing on the cake.

In the 5th round Arsenal were granted another home tie, this time against the inform Liverpool, who they would face a week prior in the Premier League. Standing at the top of the league, Arsenal were struck with a reality check when they were obliterated 5-1 at Anfield, conceding 4 in the opening 20 minutes. A match that catapulted Liverpool into the title race and gave them a new found confidence before the FA Cup match at the Emirates.  Many expected Liverpool to run riot again and knock Arsenal out of the competition but fortune favoured the side with the most to lose. The Gunners were preparing for their Round of 16 clash against the European Champions, which forced Arsene Wenger to rest key players including Giroud, Cazorla, Wilshere and Sagna. The Pressure was on but after an early onslaught by the Merseyside club in which Daniel Sturridge missed two golden chances, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put the Gunners in front after 16 minutes.

Arsenal doubled their lead early the second half, as Mesut Özil provided a picture perfect ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain who ran onto the ball with lightning pace and cut it back to Podolski who hammered it into the net. Liverpool were awarded a soft penalty as Podolski tried to steal the ball from Suarez in the box, but the Uruguayan went down easy and as a result Gerrard converted the penalty. Arsenal held on for 30 minutes to advance to the quarter finals against the blue half of Merseyside.

A win against Everton would grant the Gunners a ticket to Wembley for the first time since they were knocked out in the semi finals against Chelsea in 2009. Once again the game was before a Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, but due to the first leg result being 2-0, Arsenal fans wanted Wenger to play a full strength squad and focus on the FA Cup. Wenger did just that, but rested main striker Olivier Giroud. Arsenal scored in the 7th minute with highly criticized record signing Mesut Özil taking advantage of a brilliant ball from Santi Cazorla. Everton equalised from a quick counter attack and the game slowed down from there. Giroud was subbed on in the 61st minute and 7 minutes later, Oxlade-Chamberlain won Arsenal a penalty. Former Everton man Arteta calmly put it in, but it had to be retaken as Giroud ran into the box before the kick. But the Spaniard was just as cool in the second take giving them a 2-1 lead. Everton seemed to run out of ideas from there, and Arsenal finished the game off with Giroud’s goal in the 83rd minute. Through the chorus of Arsenal fans singing ‘Que Sera,’ Mesut Özil assisted Giroud for his second and Arsenal’s fourth to secure a semi final berth.

After being momentarily kicked out of the top 4 by the very team they knocked out of the cup, Arsenal’s only hope of a trophy was officially the FA Cup. Their last obstacle before the final was the reigning champions Wigan. It was a nerve wracking day for every Gooner in the world and after conceding a penalty in the 63rd minute due to a late tackle from Per Mertesacker, it seemed the drought would continue. But the very man who conceded the goal had other ideas. With only 8 minutes left for the 90, Yaya Sanogo laid the ball to Chamberlain who bounced the ball towards Mertesacker who headed it in on his knees. It saved the tie and forced extra time. No team could find the net for the 30 minutes and penalties loomed upon the Championship and Premier League sides. It was Arsenal’s second choice keeper who was the hero. Fabianski, who is out of contract at the end of the season, saved Wigan’s first two penalties to put Arsenal in the driver’s seat. Arsenal’s penalty takers were all clinical, and Cazorla took the penalty that secured their place in the FA Cup final for the first time since they last won the competition in 2005.

The Naysayers will claim Arsenal had an easy run to the final due to being at home in every round. Taking into consideration the amount of injuries and matches in between every cup game, Arsenal were more deserving than every other team. To be drawn against three of the Top 6 clubs in England and prevail is no simple task. If you compare Arsenal’s run to their opponent Hull City’s run, it is quite an astonishing difference. Hull faced Middlesbrough, Southend United, Brighton & Hove Albion, Sunderland and Sheffield United. There is only one Premier League side on that list, proving that Arsenal was given the toughest possible draw to get to Wembley. The two Premier League matches between the finalists ended in an Arsenal win. Arsenal came out 2-0 winners at home and 3-0 winners away.

The most important factor going into the final is that Arsenal will have a fully fit squad. Aaron Ramsey is in fine form once again, following a three month injury. Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs and possibly even Oxlade-Chamberlain will all be a part of the monumental occasion. You can say that form flies out the window in a cup final but when comparing the quality in the two sides, Arsenal should be comfortable winners especially with their best players back in the team.

In order to avoid a repeat of the Birmingham final, Arsenal must not take anything for granted and fight for a goal from the very beginning. The biggest difference between Birmingham and now is that Arsenal already played at Wembley so there should be nothing new about the stadium. This is the biggest game in the last 3 years, and if Arsenal are to move forward at full force, they must win on Saturday. Not only to end the trophy drought but to have a winning mentality. Most importantly, they need to win it for the fans who stuck by the team through thick and thin. Players can leave a club but supporters are there for every moment, whether it be good or bad. Let’s not forget about the man in charge. Arsene Wenger has worked with little to no money for the whole of the trophy drought and kept the team amongst Europe’s elite. He deserves to lift a trophy more than any player in the team.
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Photo via Wonker

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