FOX Soccer Exclusive
Treble season still possible for Arsenal
The Gunners live to fight another day.
Arsenal vanquished a faster, stronger and probably better Liverpool side on Sunday night behind their second string, finally putting to bed a ferocious week that has at times, seemed almost Gothic in nature. They have Bayern Munich ahead of them on Wednesday right enough (live, FOX Sports 2, 2:45 p.m. ET), but they now have a little room to breathe, a little space out from under suffering expectations. Arsenal remain in the FA Cup, with an eminently winnable quarterfinal tie against Everton ahead of them next month, and with that, the also retain the promise of some silverware of a kind that has proved so elusive for the last eight seasons.
Believe it or not, for Arsenal, a treble is still possible.
This was by any measure a chaotic week. After a 5-1 thumping at the hands of this very same Liverpool side, Arsenal failed to fully recover, slinking through a 0-0 draw against Manchester United that earned them fierce howls from their home fans. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho erupted at manager Arsene Wenger, calling him a “specialist in failure” in an extraordinary series of comments that surely signaled the end of what had been a détente between the two men. And then, hours before kickoff, strike Olivier Giroud was forced to concede what was all over the morning papers: he reportedly had been having an affair, and had lied about it to his club.
Thus, it was with a bit of a wry smile that Wenger met the media after the match. He refused to comment extensively on Giroud -- claiming, unbelievably, that he had not even seen the striker’s statement -- and said only this about Mourinho: “I’m embarrassed for him, honestly.”
He was far more at ease talking about the performance of Yana Sanogo, gracious towards Liverpool, stubbornly proud of his team’s spirit.
“It was a vital for us to respond to a disappointing performance we had against [Liverpool] last week and vital for us as well because it was an opportunity to reach the quarterfinals of the FA Cup,” said Wenger. “There was a clinical desire in my team, and that’s why I think it was a great game between two big teams. Everyone may question the FA Cup, but I think it was a great performance.”
Such dry language masks what exactly Arsenal had done. Just a look down the field after the match would have proven that. There was Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, inconsolable in the middle of the field. There was Mathieu Flamini, the cut-off sleeves of his shirt whipping in the wind. There was Giroud, gleeful to be off Twitter. There was Steven Gerrard, looking down, whispering to the younger players, trudging off to the lockerroom.
Shuffling the deck with seven changes from Wednesday’s game, Wenger gambled that fresher legs would outweigh better ideas. He kept his shape in the back with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, but he took a massive gamble with the inclusion of Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson out wide. It was a gamble that nearly came back to bite him as Monreal was a liability all game long out wide, unable to contain Raheem Sterling, and hopelessly out of his depth against Luis Suarez.
But sometimes you get lucky, and Arsenal did on Monday. They were superb on the break, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain barreling through the center, forcing opponents to foul him to stop him. Sanogo was indeed impressive, setting up the ball for the first goal, and even in fading, remaining a presence Liverpool couldn’t entirely ignore. And then there was Howard Webb, an excellent yet controversial ref. He denied Liverpool a penalty at the feet of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and in not giving it, probably also gave the match to the Gunners.
“It’s a clear penalty,” said Brendan Rodgers afterwards, but with no malice. “I’m not sure if it wasn’t given because it [came] so quickly after the first one. But Luis goes around Alex and it’s blatant. We’re disappointed about it because it would have kept the momentum going. I haven’t had the chance to speak to Howard, but for me it’s gone, you can’t change it or affect it. I’ll speak to an assistant, but it was a defining moment in the game. I don’t know if Luis was penalized for his reputation -- you’d have to ask Howard.”
Wenger did not deny there was contact -- how could he after all -- but he evaded whether or not it should have been given. And he did not point out -- as he could have -- that he had actually fielded his scrubs and got his revenge on Liverpool anyway.
What the game meant to the players was also clear. A fast-talking and ebullient Oxlade-Chamberlain said afterward: “It’s been a tough run of fixtures for us with three big games in a week, and now we have a tough game on Wednesday. It’s definitely a confidence booster and we can take that into the game against Bayern.”
Liverpool may be out, and the manner of their exit will sting -- but they did not leave entirely empty-handed. As Rodgers pointed out, his side is a far cry from where they were earlier this season, when Arsenal had swept them off the field in an imperious 2-0 performance. And, in fact, the Reds may have gained something of an advantage on the Manchester Citys, the Arsenals and the Chelseas.
“[The result] narrows our focus down to one [competition] and if we continue to show the confidence and belief you saw [Sunday], if we play with that and have that offensive nature to our game, it will be an exciting final twelve games,” said Rodgers.
A dark-horse run at the Premier League title is hardly out of Liverpool’s reach, and that might be the irony of Sunday’s result. Wenger and Arsenal won the battle on Sunday night, but time will tell if they also win the war. But you had better believe that right now, they will take it.
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