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May 22, 2014

Cup to spark trophy surge

Having seen off Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton on the way to the FA Cup semifinals, it's safe to say that the expectations were high that the Gunners could lift the famous old trophy.

Especially when the other three teams in the competition were Hull City, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic. There wasn't a semi, or final, draw that should have worried Arsene Wenger's team too much.

And yet. And yet. Wigan came within eight minutes of ending the dream, while the final itself required Arsenal to come from behind having allowed Hull to go 2-0 up within the first ten minutes.

Arsenal fans and some of the players wouldn't have had to cast their minds back too far to think of a similar situation. The 2011 Carling Cup saw Wenger's men in the last four along with Birmingham City, Ipswich and West Ham. On paper it looked as if any draw would be relatively favourable but after reaching the final they lost the game in tragi-comic style to Birmingham.

So, with that so fresh in the memory, is it any wonder that Arsenal's performances at Wembley were so below par? The pressure was utterly crippling in that semifinal, a game which could have ended Arsene Wenger's tenure as manager. Instead they kept going, a Per Mertesacker header and a professional penalty shoot-out saw them through.

They could have been 3-0 down in the final but for an incredible goal line clearance from Kieran Gibbs but they fought back and I don't think anyone can say that Aaron Ramsey's extra-time winner wasn't deserved for the way they controlled the game after the Laurent Koscielny equaliser. The celebrations were incredible at Wembley and beyond but there was a good healthy dose of relief in there too. Almost like going to the doctor expecting grim news and finding out it was a false alarm.

When people talk about this cup win being a platform for Arsenal to go on and win things, I think they look at the young players who will benefit from this. Tasting success for the first time in red and white will make them hungry for more and crucially provide them with the experience that's so important when it comes to the big games.

But what lifting the cup also does is liberate them and the club from the pressure of always being the ones who don't win. Who haven't won. Who people doubt can ever win again. It has been the football equivalent of swimming with lead boots on.

The line between success and failure is often a very thin one -- a mix-up between a goalkeeper and a centre-half, for example -- but as the game went on last Saturday, you could see Arsenal's confidence and belief grow.

Gibbs should have won it in normal time; Olivier Giroud hit the bar with a thumping header; Ramsey could easily have scored before he finally made it count and although they got lucky when Lukasz Fabianski decided to go visit the wide open spaces of the Wembley pitch, they asserted themselves on the game and ended up victorious.

Knowing that they've won a trophy at long last -- not to mention the fact they can feel as if they're the ones that put some kind of long-standing hoodoo to rest -- will give them an obvious lift, but knowing they can play without having to face the tedious "How long has it been" narrative?" is an added bonus.

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