Defining moment for Arsenal in FA Cup match vs. Everton
The Gunners are facing a defining moment. Reeling after an ugly 1-0 loss to Stoke City in the league that dropped them into third place, the Gunners’ title hopes have been further dented by the news that Jack Wilshere will miss almost the entire remainder of the season after he fractured his foot in England’s 1-0 friendly win over Denmark on Wednesday evening. They face a two-week period that sees them face Chelsea, Tottenham and Bayern Munich — but first must get past a dogged and battling Everton side to remain in the FA Cup.
It will not be an easy task. Everton held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw in December at the Emirates, with the Toffees snatching a point at the death thanks to Gerard Deulofeu. Everton had largely outplayed Arsenal for most of that match, shocking the Gunners with their passing and intensity, but it looked as if they would be denied a share of the spoils when Mesut Ozil beat Tim Howard with ten to play.
Everton looked sterling against league-leaders Chelsea a fortnight ago and were cruelly denied a deserved point by a late mistake from Howard that seemed to see him put the ball into his own net. They then rebounded with a 1-0 win over West Ham that showcased the return of Romelu Lukaku to play after a month-long absence with an ankle injury. While the Toffees are overly dependent on loan signings and don’t have much hope of breaking into a UEFA Champions League slot, they have been on the up, and are exactly the kind of team Arsenal doesn’t want to face right now.
Where Everton will be vulnerable is in the back: Phil Jagielka is still unavailable and John Stones will again have to deputize, putting some pressure on Gareth Barry in the holding role. Stones has been a weak link in an otherwise stout side, and his size will be factor. An open question is whether or not Roberto Martinez plays his usual FA Cup keeper, Joel Robles. Considering the magnitude of this match, however, Howard may return to the starting lineup.
Arsenal have been heading in the opposite direction. Knocked off their perch atop the league table by Chelsea, the Gunners have won only one of their past four Premier League games. They are effectively out of the Champions League after conceding two goals at home against reigning champions Bayern Munich. With an inferior goal difference against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, they look to be on the short end of the stick. Injuries to key players such as Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and now Jack Wilshere have not helped, but Arsenal looked foolish when they failed to sign ready reinforcements in the winter window, instead picking up the injured Kim Kallstrom.
Guess what? Kallstrom is apparently fit and set to go against Everton, but it’s hard to argue that the veteran midfielder will make up for what Arsenal really lack right now: a world-class striker who can share the load with Olivier Giroud. Giroud has looked exhausted as the season has worn on, and youngster Yaya Sanogo is clearly not ready for primetime. Kallstrom might — read, might — help Ozil. Ozil has faded so badly this year that he was actually whistled off the field by his own fans when Germany beat Chile in a friendly Wednesday — and this, after he set up the winning goal
Arsenal are the better team, but one does have to wonder about their character. Arsenal have typically grown in strength as the season goes on, but they have taken a number of big hits — from the drubbings at the hands of Manchester City and Liverpool to their Champions league stumbles — and how badly they are fading over the stretch is a concern. Arsene Wenger has admitted as much, noting that their loss against Stoke was, in his words, a "massive setback."
And that ramps up the pressure here ahead of Saturday’s match. The fact is, the FA Cup represents the Gunners’ best chance to break their nine-year trophy drought. Arsenal have not been able to add to their trophy cabinet since they won the FA Cup in 2005. Should they stumble here, Arsenal’s fans will once again be left to wonder what if.