Sunday, March 12, 2017

Semi-final provides some perspective after another bad week

The last few weeks haven’t been good for Arsenal fans. There’s been a humiliating European exit, a defeat at Anfield, reports of training ground disputes, a lack of clarity from anyone over what is happening next season and a few fans have staged protests before the last couple of games. Things haven’t been great, and while the victory on Saturday against Lincoln City was expected, it did put Arsenal through to the FA Cup semi-finals.
That provides context that some of the hysteria over Arsenal from some supporters and sections of the media has been exaggerated. Make no mistake that there are problems and one way or another, this summer could be a big one of upheaval for Arsenal, but the walls aren’t falling in in quite the way some would like to make it seem. It’s not the worst period in the club’s history by any stretch, and it’s because of the high standards that Arsene Wenger has brought to the club that this current run of form seems so bad. In reality, the Gunners can still get in the top four this season and are in a third FA Cup semi-final in four years.
Questions have to be asked about the failed title challenge and the continuous round of 16 exits in Europe, but I get very frustrated when people use doing well in the FA Cup as a stick to beat Arsene Wenger with, as if it isn’t enough. If you’re an Arsenal fan annoyed at the FA Cup, then I hope you don’t come to Wembley for the semi-final because for the vast majority of fans, it still really matters. That’s been evident in the number of fans that have gone to games in Preston and Southampton in the cup run so far this season, and the fact that the Emirates was full on Saturday for a game against a National League side. I’m delighted that Arsenal have a manager that really cares about the FA Cup. I’ll never get bored of going deep into this tournament.
Partly down to the thrashing against Bayern on Tuesday, but also because of how much the competition means to Arsene Wenger, it was a very strong side selected by the manager for the visit of Lincoln City. It would have been easy to make a lot of changes and Arsenal would probably still have got the job done, but in the current climate, Arsene Wenger wasn’t taking any chances. With Mesut Ozil appearing off the bench in the first half, with the obvious exception of Santi Cazorla, it was arguably as strong a team as Arsene Wenger can field.
The first half was difficult for Arsenal as Lincoln had plenty of energy and were very well organised. They showed why they’d got this far in the competition and why they’re likely to become a Football League team again next season. The Gunners also looked wounded from the last week and nervous as the team with a lot to lose. 
The opening goal was scrappy when it arrived just before half-time with Theo Walcott’s shot deflected into the bottom corner, continuing his good form in the FA Cup this season, but it was just the sort of thing Arsenal needed to settle themselves down. After half-time, the Gunners upped the intensity and wore the visitors out.
Olivier Giroud got on the end of some nice build-up between Bellerin and Alexis to make it two before Kieran Gibbs’ low cross was turned in for an own goal. Alexis Sanchez avoided being wiped out by the full-back before curling the ball into the bottom corner and Aaron Ramsey walked the ball in for a fifth goal.
Lincoln were shattered by the end of the game, and having said they wanted to face all of Arsenal’s superstars, they definitely got them in full flow for spells in the second half. Despite the score-lines of the two games, there was no question that Lincoln were the better of the two non-league teams Arsenal have faced in the FA Cup this season. Had Sutton faced that starting line-up and on the Emirates pitch, it would have been worse than 5-0.
In some ways, it was exactly the sort of game Arsenal needed. It gives them something obvious to look forward to and work towards later in the season with the semi-final and it allowed Arsenal’s attackers to get some fluidity back into their game. There were nerves, but once the first goals went in, Arsenal were able to relax and get into the groove again. As a supporter, it was also exactly what was needed as I was able to enjoy the second half without the fear of implosion.
The celebration police won’t want Arsenal fans to get over-excited about beating a non-league team, but with the way things have gone recently, it was most welcome. Plus whatever has gone beforehand in other competitions this season, Arsenal do at least go into April with a shot at a trophy.