09 March 2014

Be careful what you ask for, FA Cup edition: The Latics

The season has thrown at Arsenal a conspiratorial list of draws that seemed designed to sabotage any chance we'd have of making progress in any competition there could be—whether it was the Prem season with its gauntlets of December, February, and March; or the Champions League, throwing us into the Group of Death and then up against Bayern; the league cup pitting us against Chelsea in the 4th round; or the FA Cup, in which we've already had to face Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton (okay, and Coventry. Fine.) Add to that on Sunday the fact that we would have to face the winner of the Wigan-Man City match, and you've got all the proof you'd need that the universe itself is aligned against Arsenal. Well, someone forget to tell that to Wigan.

Last time we met, 14 May 2013: Arsenal 4-1 Wigan
For the second time in as many seasons, Wigan has defeated almighty Man City. Wigan. Market value of £49m defeated market-value of £395m. Last season, it was to claim the FA Cup for themselves. This time through, they went into the well-nigh impregnable Etihad and did what only Bayern, Chelsea, and Barcelona have done. Only a second-half strike from Samir Nasri marred the clean-sheet, but it was clearly not enough to deny the Latics, who have booked a trip to Wembley for the second consecutive season, this time to face us.

On its face, this is exactly what we could have asked for. The path to the trophy is now, it seems, clear, with only Wigan and the winner of Hull-Sheffield United standing between us and that trophy. However, as I'm sure I'm not the first to point out, we can't risk underestimating Wigan, as it seems Man City did. Pellegrini named a less-than-full-strength squad, choosing to rest regulars like Hart, Kpmpany, and Silva as he looked ahead to Wednesday's trip to Barcelona.

We face little such temptation, though, as we'll have long since passed our second leg with Bayern, although a repeat of last year's performance would be welcome. As it stands, the FA Cup semifinal is set for the weekend of 12-13 April, which comes on the heels of our trip to Goodison Park to face Everton. By the time we suit up to face Wigan, we may know all we need to know about our status in the Prem. Even if we've advanced in the Champions League and managed to win at White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, at home against Swansea and then Man City, and at Goodison Park, that may not be enough to keep us in the Prem title-chase. In other words, the FA Cup may be the one trophy still firmly within our grasp.

And so we come up against Wigan, a team we've only faced 20 times, winning 15, losing three, and drawing twice.  The last time we met yielded a 4-1 win, with goals from Walcott and Ramsey and a brace from Podolski relegating Wigan to the Championship—although, to be fair, this was Wigan's first match after winning the FA Cup, and the hangover was almost certainly there. Meanwhile, we were fighting tooth-and-nail to hold onto fourth place. Let's not dwell too much on details. When it comes to knock-out football, none of the numbers really mean much. If they did, we'd be facing Man City in the semifinal.

As it stands, then, we have now earned the right to face a squad that, on paper, might be the easiest draw we've had in any competition this season. After all, not only are Wigan in the Championship, they're hardly setting it on fire. They currrently sit seventh, just outside of the promotion-playoff spots albeit with two games in hand over Reading, but they're seventeen points off the pace for automatic promotion. This puts them some 24 spots below us, which raises the specter of other defeats we've suffered in years past against, say, Blackburn, Bradford, Birmingham, Ipswich...anyway.

Realizing that there's a full month and then some between now and then, Arsène knows full-well the importance of the semifinal. With Wigan and then Hull or Sheffield United all that stand between us and the end of this inglorious trophy-drought, we had better see a full-force, first-team squad named. Everyone, save Theo and Diaby, should be back from injury, and knock on wood that no other knocks are suffered. The only exception to the 'first-team' fulminations? Lukas Fabiański. He's been between the sticks for each of our FA Cup wins and done quite well. conceding only Gerrard's PK and Lukaku's sloppy-seconds while keeping two other clean sheets.

In a way, I regret that Wigan dumped Man City. It deprives us of the chance—but, having ousted Everton, Liverpool, and Tottenham, few could claim that we've had it easy. On the other hand, Wigan have had their FA Cup glory to revel in for nearly a year, and so my conscience is not bothered in the least at the idea of dumping them out this time through. In fact, I'm perfectly happy to set aside my normal 'root for the underdog' compunctions in order to bathe ourselves, finally, in glory. First things first, though: defeat Wigan. Hell, I'm already writing off Bayern. I'm looking past White Hart Lane. The weekend of April 12-13 is circled in red on my calendar—with an arrow pointing to 17 May. It's been almost nine years. How fitting it would be to end that drought with the same cup we last won...