There are times when football can seem a desperately cruel sport, capriciously inflicting misery on the undeserving, and then there are days like Sunday, when it's possible to imagine it as a benign force, rewarding those it deems worthy.
Last season, Wigan Athletic took the FA Cup seriously. While others near the bottom of the table prioritized survival, Wigan reached for glory. Perhaps it would have been relegated anyway, but when it won the FA Cup final against Manchester City, it was hard not to wonder of the price it had paid was to leave the Premier League. This season, there have been grumbles; fans have begun to wonder whether all the glee last May really was worth sacrificing the trips to Old Trafford and the Emirates for visits to Oakwell and Huish Park. So football gave it something back; it gave it another game against Manchester City and, improbably, it gave it another victory -- this time under the management of the former City hero, Uwe Rosler.
All the expectation had been of City, having picked up the Capital One Cup last week, pushing on towards a possible domestic treble. Yet for three quarters of the game it was desperately flat, lacking verve and drive and creativity - and in that time Wigan scored twice, though Jordi Gomez's penalty and James Perch's bundled finish from James McArthur's cross. Martin Demichelis -- again -- was at fault for the opener, treading clumsily on Marc-Antoine Fortune's foot having been rolled by him far too easily, while Gael Clichy seemed strangely timid in challenging for the second.
Manuel Pellegrini had set the tone by resting Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernandinho and David Silva, and his frustration at the players he did pick was clear as he made a treble change after 51 minutes, taking off Yaya Toure, Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas. Toure's first-half performance against Sunderland last week was largely forgotten when he scored a brilliant equalizer; this time there was no redemption for another half-paced display. The substitutions made a difference and as Wigan tired, City the pressure mounted. It did pull one back through Samir Nasri, but the surge had begun too late. Wigan, defending heroically in the best traditions of the Cup, rode its luck to hold out and the extraordinary had happened again.
Its reward is another visit to Wembley -- where its owner Dave Whelan, as he will no doubt remind us, broke his leg in the 1960 FA Cup final while playing for Blackburn (He then used compensation money to found the sportswear firm that made his fortune). Their semi-final will be against Arsenal, which is now an overwhelming favorite to end its trophy drought.
Although Arsenal won the first FA Cup at the new Wembley, beating Manchester United on penalties in 2005, it hasn't won at the stadium since. That's a fact that shouldn't be of significance, but with Arsenal you always feel it might be. It remains a bewildering team, capable both of ruthlessness and tentativeness, wrestling as much with itself as with its opponent. Saturday's 4-1 victory over Everton was entirely representative: dominant for half an hour in which it scored once, then diffident for half an hour after conceding a surprising equalizer, and then dominant again after retaking the lead from a twice-taken penalty.
Much of the post-match talk, understandably, was of Mesut Özil, as though by scoring one and setting one up he had magically returned to form. It was, it's true, a much improved performance on what he has shown for the past couple of months, but Özil remains Özil: a player who flits in and out of games, somebody who can, with one well-time pass, change the whole narrative, but who is never going to seize a game and shape it to his will. That said, there was one 70-yard run back to defend in the first half, almost as though he were making a point to his critics that he can fulfill his defensive responsibilities. "I hope that will encourage him," Wenger said. "What I liked with him is that physically he looked regenerated, having more power in his runs. As well what I liked, he did a lot of dirty work for a player like him - that means he tracked back in the first half, especially on the counter-attack. He came back with long runs and, when he behaves like that, of course you have a better chance to win the game."
It wasn't just Wigan fans celebrating unlikely victories on Sunday. There was an emotional pitch invasion at the KC Stadium after Hull City reached its first semi-final since 1930 by beating Sunderland 3-0. It will face Sheffield United of League One, who beat Charlton Athletic 2-0, its ninth straight win under Nigel Clough, whose father Brian, for all his success with Derby and Nottingham Forest, never lifted the FA Cup.
Arsenal may be the favorite, and may think it will never have a better chance to end the years of dearth, but there are other fairy stories waiting to be written, and this was a day when it seemed anything is possible.