Club Focus – Arsenal – Where does Carling Cup defeat to Birmingham leave Arsenal’s season?

For the masses of Arsenal fans that made their way across London, things did not go to plan. Carling Cup success was supposed to be the springboard to further silverware this season, but without their launch pad, will the Gunners’ season take off?

When Birmingham City took the lead through Nicola Zigic’s flicked header, the all too familiar combination of slack marking and indecisive goalkeeping reared its ugly head. The more optimistic fans may have taken solace in the fact that Arsenal’s previous two League Cup victories had been by a 2-1 scoreline, and when Robin van Persie scored his 13th goal in 11 games since the turn of the year, the optimists appeared to be turning into realists. His crisp volley found the net just before half time and appeared to shake off a malaise that had gripped the side up to that point.

Yet as the match wore on, Arsenal could not find the crucial breakthrough. Unable to slice open the Blues’ defence, Tomas Rosicky, then Samir Nasri, peppered the Birmingham goal to find Ben Foster in inspired form. With the game set for extra time, the Gunners were undone by a cruel sucker punch. Koscielny, imperious against Barcelona, consistently struggled with the alternative threat posed by Zigic, and the Serb was heavily involved as Birmingham fashioned the winner. After Zigic won yet another header on the edge of the box, Wojciech Szczesny appeared to call Koscielny to leave the bouncing ball. When the Frenchman withdrew his boot mid flight, the Polish keeper spilt the ball at the feet of Obafemi Martins who gratefully slotted home the winner. For Arsenal fans, only the timing of the goal was more painful than the manner in which it came.

The 2-1 scoreline that was supposed to complete the Gunners’ turnaround turned its back on the men in red. Rather than echoing to previous successes, the score gave a painful reminder of the 2007 League Cup final when they lost to Chelsea, in another 2-1 defeat by ‘the Blues’. Martins’ winner in the dying minutes on Sunday ensured the wait for silverware goes on, and not only does Arsene Wenger have to rebuild the confidence of his defensive unit, he will have to protect the morale of his young side.

Having recently asserted: “It’ll be important for the confidence of the team for the rest of the season… Winning the Carling Cup will be like beating Chelsea, like beating Barcelona – another step forward,” Wenger now faces a tough task in refocusing his players. Whilst winning would have been a step forward, defeat does not put the side in retrograde. Arsenal’s catalyst is not a tri-handled trophy, but a silky Spaniard. Cesc Fabregas’ absence was keenly felt and his fitness for the remainder of the season will be key in taking Wenger’s men beyond the cusp of success, to actually deliver.

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