Wenger's gamble fails as Arsenal fall short
Arsenal fans have had optimism removed from them to such an extent that many of them do not even crave glory any more. A recent poll on the club's official website suggested that a majority of fans would settle for fourth place over the winning of a trophy. Fourth, the position of the rank also-ran, will have to do. It is the best that can be hoped for. The FA Cup is lost once more.
"No respect for the bloody Cup," bawled an angry fan kicking his way out of the Emirates. Arsene Wenger gambled and lost badly. One-time comedy club Blackburn Rovers were through, and deservedly so. They needed a single chance to do so. Arsenal's demise arrived in time-honoured style. They dominated possession and did nothing with it. Rovers profited. The end. Just like against Bradford City, in fact.
Wenger's team selection was a clear sign of priorities. Bayern Munich arrive on Tuesday, and so Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla were saved until the 70th minute, with the dreaded prospect of a replay looming. A club like Arsenal does not want to be trifling itself with more cup games.
Mission accomplished. There will be no distracting replay. A minute after the Arsenal cavalry arrived, Martin Olsson's shot was parried unconvincingly by Wojciech Szczesny, and Turkey-via-Leytonstone's Colin Kazim-Richards, a one-time Arsenal trainee, bounced his shot into the net. "There were 11 international players on the pitch at the start of play, and when we made the change we were level," Wenger said in defence of his selection, though he barely concealed his anger. "We were not good enough to win the game, it is as simple as that."
After Kazim's goal, howls of home disaffection were full-blooded. Wenger's puffa-jacketed figure prowled his technical area in panic mode. Arsenal pushed desperately. Wilshere and Cazorla probed, Walcott was wrongly waved offside and then had a header saved by Rovers 'keeper Jake Kean, who smothered the ball, and was then engulfed in grateful team-mates' congratulations.
Blackburn gained measure of Arsenal's increasing frenzy as time added on ticked on. Repeatedly predictable use of the overlap and square pass from the by-line were dealt with easily. Centre-halves Grant Hanley and Scott Dann made interception after clearance after intervention. "We make sure we don't show teams the outside," explained Rovers boss Michael Appleton. "We work on it in training. It's no fluke from that point of view. You don't win games of football without being organised."
Appleton, with rippling muscles, closed-cropped hair and armfuls of tattoos, may look like a cage-fighter but is a model of serenity compared to what preceded him. Steve Kean, the excitable master of little beyond the misnomer, is gone, and the man who removed him, 'global advisor' Shebby Singh, is missing, presumed departed. Singh and Appleton are yet to meet.
Singh's last stand was the abortive appointment of Henning Berg and a subsequent radio appearance that blasted away any credibility he may have had left. A semblance of Championship form has Appleton's team within striking distance of the play-offs. At last, common sense broke out in Blackburn and with it has come success.
A manager under fire who bridles with unconvincing optimism where many fans see only doom, and an ownership constantly brought into question: Blackburn fans might now sympathise with Arsenal. They've been there. It was once their seemingly permanent state of being, but there are now green shoots of recovery. Rovers suffered a nightmarish couple of years from the moment their Venky's owners took over the club. For better or for worse, fair means or fowl, they are stuck with their chicken-punting overlords, with one consolation being that Venky's do have some money to spend. By contrast to the gorging at QPR, Rovers chose to spend their cash after relegation. The greatest piece of global advice that Singh may have offered was to encourage the purchase of 19-goal Jordan Rhodes. They have also retained a number of players good enough for the Premier League. Of those who remain, Hanley's porcine features bristled with a determination so deep that at one point he was to be found clattering team-mate Jason Lowe in pursuit of a loose ball.
Rovers' aim was to turn Arsenal's impatient home crowd and hit them on the break. It was performed to the letter. A stack of corners were forced in the first half, the most dangerous giving Abou Diaby a free header. Kean, absolutely no relation to Steve, made a smart save to his left. Rhodes and Kazim-Richards cut lonesome blue-shirted figures ahead of a midfield concentrating solely on defence, ahead of a defence pinned back almost to the six-yard line.
Gervinho, the player named by his manager as the star of the recent African Nations Cup, was granted the best chance of the first 45 by a superb Tomas Rosicky flick. The African king soon reverted to Emirates whipping boy when his shot was screwed wide of the post.
David Bentley, loaned back to Blackburn from Tottenham via his loan spell in Rostov, was booed as he warmed up by fans of the club at which he began his career. The mockery got louder when he replaced Marcus Olsson. Bentley's most famous act at Arsenal was the 40-yarder scored for Tottenham in a pulsating 4-4 derby draw in 2008. It was a moment that might have launched Bentley's career to the top. Instead, he is back at the club where he played his best football, five years having been wasted at White Hart Lane. A first day back in his old job was a happy one.
Meanwhile, his old employers find themselves in a crisis that may be familiar but looks as deep as any during Wenger's time at Arsenal. The Champions League is all that remains but does anyone truly believe Arsenal can win it? Or even get past Bayern? And fourth, that trophy-by-proxy that some Gunners say they would settle for, is by no means certain either. Glory has become an alien concept to Arsenal.
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