Arsenal secured victory against West Ham in the FA Cup this weekend, maintaining Arsene Wenger’s record of having never been knocked out at the third round stage of the competition. The Gunners had to come from behind to fashion the victory and the introduction of some of their more experienced players during the second half had the desired effect and transformed the team’s fortunes.
Until Aaron Ramsey’s 78th minute strike the headlines were writing themselves. Wenger rested some of his key players for the fixture and had Arsenal succumbed to West Ham’s industry and guile then the cynics, keen to uphold the honour of the esteemed FA Cup, would have had their hatchets at the ready. Suggestions that Wenger’s selection devalued the competition and indicated a lack of respect will have to be put on hold now. Although the Arsenal team had the feel of a weakened cup side, on closer inspection it is hard to see which other players would have stepped into the fold. It is noteworthy that the manager maintained his central defensive partnership and picked arguably his strongest back four, as Mikael Silvestre has been pushing for a regular slot at left-back in recent weeks in the continuing absence of Gael Clichy and Kieran Gibbs. Manuel Almunia was replaced by Lukasz Fabianski, with the former having been hardly convincing in goal over the festive period and many believing that Wenger favours the Pole to be his number one. Ramsey continued to deputise ably for the injured Fabregas, and other than Jack Wilshere, Fran Merida and Carlos Vela, the Gunners’ offensive players represented a full strength selection with the ongoing injury situation.
Whilst Arsenal do take the competition seriously, getting knocked out wouldn’t have been the worst-case scenario. A priority must surely have been to avoid a replay, although arguably not at the expense of exiting the competition. Wenger’s men play their much anticipated ‘game in hand’ against Bolton on Wednesday whilst title rivals Chelsea have a break until Saturday. Fixture congestion does not appear to be troubling the Gunners’ form as they recorded a fourth win in a row in all competitions. However, several games in quick succession is likely to expose an already injury struck squad to further setbacks, so another positive from the weekend’s game was that they picked up no further injuries. Arsenal were thankful to have Alex Song available on Sunday as he played his last game before leaving to join up with the Cameroon squad for the African Nations Cup. With the extended stays of other Angola-bound players not reaching as far as this weekend’s fixtures, it appears as though Wenger called in a favour from his old friend Paul Le Guen, the Cameroon coach. That West Ham targeted Song as they tried to stem the Gunners’ attacking flow is an indication of how influential a player he has become. The Gunners will have to adapt to life without the impressive Song for the next few games.
Wenger named a side that he felt could get the job done and ultimately the Gunners have progressed to the fourth round. To say that the FA Cup is not important to Arsenal is unfair and it must be remembered that Wenger has guided his side to the trophy on four occasions. However, whilst the supporters will always be keen for a trip to Wembley the competition is not one of the manger’s priorities. The domestic league is a team’s ‘bread and butter’ and the kudos and bragging rights that come with being the champions of your country is especially important to the supporters. Arsene Wenger is all too aware of this, but he dreams of European glory, and despite having come so close in 2006, the large handles of the trophy have eluded him. Wenger is driven by the fact that he feels the need to win the Champions League to be considered a true great. Despite his transformation of the image and fortunes of Arsenal, and being widely recognised as a key factor in the development of the modern game, a European Cup would crown his reign at the helm. Currently Wenger holds the unenviable crown of being the only manager to lose in the final of all three of UEFA’s club tournaments – with Monaco in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992 and Arsenal in the UEFA Cup in 2000 and the Champions League in 2006. Whilst Wenger will contend that he believes his selections can win in the FA Cup, as long as the north London side are in contention for the Premiership and Champions League, the FA Cup will always take a back seat.