It is remarkable how jaded Arsenal fans have become with the FA Cup. Or maybe it’s that any successes under Arsène Wenger no longer count, only the failures.
After Alexis Sánchez scored in extra time to give Arsenal a 2-1 victory over Manchester City, 2-1, on Sunday in the second semifinal, Twitter was still awash with “Wengerout” hashtags. Piers Morgan, the public face of the Ungratefuls, caught tweeting excitedly about the Sánchez goal, backtracked with: “nothing about the FA Cup excites me any more.”
Over the last three seasons, the latter stages of the FA Cup have repeatedly demonstrated the resilience of Wenger’s team.
In 2014, Arsenal also came from behind in the semifinal before beating Wigan on penalties. In the final that year, it went two goals down after eight minutes before beating Hull in extra time. In 2015, it needed extra time to beat Reading before crushing Aston Villa in the final.
Yet the detractors might argue that those displays, like Sunday’s match, highlight shortcomings. Arsenal fans expect, perhaps unfairly, their team to crush the likes of Wigan, Reading and Hull every time. Yet a frequent inability to beat less glamorous teams in 90 minutes has undermined Arsenal’s recent campaigns.
On Sunday, for an hour, Arsenal did nothing to excite its fans. Manchester City comfortably dominated. When Sergio Agüero strolled away from the Arsenal defense to chip City into the lead after 62 minutes, Arsenal had not managed a shot on target.
Once again, City failed to turn domination into goals. It could complain that decisions by the referee and his assistants had deprived it of a couple of goals, but, over the 120 minutes, it also wasted a series of good chances.
Yet Agüero’s goal woke the sleeping Arsenal dog. Nacho Monreal, who saves his rare goals for FA Cup matches against Manchester clubs, levelled. If Danny Welbeck had been calmer, Arsenal could have won in regulation time. Welbeck also whiffed on a great chance in the 11th minute of extra time, but, with the defense wrong-footed, the ball rolled to Sánchez. He doesn’t whiff.
Cheer up Arsenal fans. Your club is heading to a record 20th FA Cup final. The manager must be doing something right.
SINGING THE BLUES There were no positives at any level that Tottenham could take from its 4-2 FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday.
It is always said that losing at this stage, and missing a chance to appear in a final, is the most crushing type of cup defeat. This was bad in a host of other ways: short-term and long- term; tactically and psychologically.
Tottenham has lost seven straight FA Cup semifinals since 1993, that breaks a tie for the record it shared with Chelsea, which lost six semis between 1920 and 1960.
It also means that, including this season’s disastrous European campaign and League Cup finals, Tottenham’s record at Wembley since the stadium was reopened in 2007 is won 2, drawn 1 and lost 6. That’s an issue because Spurs plan to use the stadium as a home either next season or the season after while their new ground is finished. It could be that the larger area, the Wembley surface is 440 yards bigger than White Hart Lane, undermines Tottenham’s pressing style. Maybe the landlords, the Football Association, will allow Spurs to shrink the pitch, but it must also consider the needs of the England team.
Tottenham was once famous for winning cups at Wembley. The latest defeat suggests that the club has developed a weakness in its DNA at the crunch time of the season. Saturday’s game was a metaphor for Tottenham’s recent vain pursuit of trophies. It fell behind, carelessly, early on and again, even more carelessly, just before half time. It played well, straining every sinew, to catch up, it did so twice, with brilliant goals by Harry Kane and Dele Alli, only to collapse in the final stages.'
Tottenham is also chasing Chelsea in the Premier League. Tottenham has been catching up there too, but still trails by four points. Before the semifinal, Antonio Conte, the Chelsea coach, said Spurs were now the best team in the division. On Saturday, Spurs were not good enough to overcome Chelsea when it mattered. That could shape the morale of both teams as they enter the final six matches of the league season.
Mauricio Pochettino insisted that Spurs “dominated” on Saturday. Statistically that’s true. Spurs had almost two thirds of possession. It won 11 corners to Chelsea’s one. But Chelsea scored after its corner. From José Mourinho through Roberto di Matteo to Conte, Chelsea has not cared whether it dominates, it only cares if it wins. It did that again on Saturday.
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A week after being out-maneuvered by Mourinho, Conte emphatically won the tactical battle with Pochettino. The Tottenham manager got greedy. He reverted to a back five while trying to keep Son Heung-min’s goals in the team by playing the South Korean at left wing-back. That backfired. Son gave away the dumb penalty that allowed Chelsea to restore its lead in the 43rd minute.
Conte did not start Eden Hazard or Diego Costa. Perhaps he was resting them with ahead of a Premier League game with Southampton on Tuesday. Certainly, Hazard struggled to impose himself against man-to-man marking against Manchester United. Perhaps he was jaded. Costa’s recent poor form might not be because of fatigue but because he is distracted by offers of increasingly large amounts of Yuan to play for Tianjin Quanjian. Maybe he is suffering the new soccer ailment: China Syndrome.
Yet the players who Conte selected hurt Spurs. Costa’s replacement, Michy Batshuayi, sprung Pedro to win a free kick in the fifth minute. Hazard’s replacement, Willian scored from the free kick and later converted the penalty.
Willian, on a hat-trick, was visibly unhappy when he was yanked after an hour with the scores level. Sending on Hazard proved the master-stroke by Conte. The Belgian put Chelsea ahead after 75 minutes and five minutes later set up Nemanja Matic for the killer fourth goal.
Tottenham’s surge up the table has been propelled by the noisy, unquestioning support of its fans, particularly at the Lane. The faithful believed again. On Saturday, before the final whistle, they had begun to leave their end at Wembley. As they trudged to the Underground, they could gloomily reflect that they had once again fallen for their club’s Hope a Dope trick.
TRAINED SURVIVOR Speaking to The Guardian this week about the way professional soccer treats its young talent, Gareth Southgate, the England manager said: “We don't talk enough about the hardness of football. It’s a shitty, horrible world really.”
Perhaps that nastiness helps prepare the survivors to cope with anything, even working for José Mourinho. The Manchester United manager appears to care nothing for the fragile egos of his players.
Last week, Mourinho took another swing at Anthony Martial, a 21-year old acquired at great expense under a previous manager. Mourinho compared the Frenchman unfavourably to the younger Marcus Rashford. Then on Thursday, United beat Anderlecht in extra time in the Europa League to add at least two more matches to its already crowded schedule while losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a season-ending injury.
On Sunday, with his squad depleted by injuries and playing on two days’ rest, Mourinho decided to rest Rashford at Burnley. That meant a start for Martial, as well as Wayne Rooney, who has been rotting on the bench. Martial delivered. He worked like Rashford for 80 minutes. Martial also scored the first goal and then helped set up Rooney for the second. Those were crucial contributions as United won, 2-0.
Of course, a player earning a basic $85,000 a week, should be prepared to run around a little. But Martial had the added incentive of knowing that, even though he wouldn’t benefit, this goal was worth far more than that. It was his 25th for the United, and triggered a clause in the deal that brought the player to the club. United must now pay almost $11M to Martial’s former club, Monaco. If Mourinho has browbeaten the youngster into doing as he’s told, the club will be happy to write the check.
AN IMMUTABLE LAW For Jürgen Klopp, Christian Benteke was a lifestyle choice.
Benteke was cast out of Anfield by Klopp. He returned on Sunday with Crystal Palace and scored twice in a 2-1 victory, it was, on one level, a demonstration of what the Italians call the “immutable law of the ex.” It also highlighted that Klopp’s choices create negatives as well as positives.
Benteke, much more than Kane, Diego Costa, Ibrahimovic or Romelu Lukaku, is an old-fashioned center forward. Klopp is a 21st century man. He does not do old fashioned. He wants slick, modern and stylish. He wants players to be mobile and flexible and to play a fluid, fast-paced game.
Benteke, naively, insisted he could play that sort of game when Brendan Rodgers brought him to Liverpool. He could not. He is best as a fixed dagger point at the head of an attack. That might make him, in theory, a tactical dinosaur. In practice, he’s a dinosaur with big, sharp teeth.
When the ball went near Benteke, the Liverpool defenders could not have been more terrified if a real Tyrannosaurus Rex had been loose in their penalty area. None was prepared to mark Benteke as he headed in the winning goal after 74 minutes. It was the ninth headed goal Liverpool has conceded from headers in the league this season.
The Reds needed an old fashioned center half to go toe to toe with Benteke. They have one: Mamadou Sakho. He was sitting on the Palace bench, unable to play because he is on loan from Liverpool. He’s not Klopp’s style either.
Against his old club, Benteke did not celebrate after either goal. After the first, he did go to the sideline and run through a rehearsed handshake with Sakho, as Klopp stared the other way.
After the second, he surveyed the home fans with an angry glare, that left no doubt of his feelings.
"I was motivated," he told Sky Sports after the game.
Klopp has built a team that can outplay the best in the Premier League but can be out-muscled by teams that cannot afford, or risk, his approach. The defeat left Liverpool still in a respectable third place, but means it is not in a battle for a top two finish but instead fighting to remain in the top four. It's a lifestyle choice.
WEIRD TALES Sunderland is hopelessly adrift. Middlebrough’s capitulation at Bournemouth on Saturday suggests it too will be going down. That leaves one relegation place to be decided.
While Leicester and Burnley may be glancing nervously over their shoulders, they all know that one more victory should be enough.
The battle is between Hull and Swansea. Both won strange games 2-0 on Saturday in a fashion that could convince either that fortune is smiling.
Fernando Llorente, Swansea’s 32-year-old center forward, has been criticized because he prefers standing still to running around. The Spaniard did not have to move an inch after 10 minutes as Gylfi Sigurdsson placed a corner on his forehead. Llorente did what he does best: headed the ball into the net. After 69 minutes, nervous Swansea gave away a penalty. Marko Arnautovic blasted it over the goal. Barely 60 seconds after that escape, Tom Carroll’s long, hopeful, shot, ballooned off a defender and over Jack Butland. Swansea had ended its six-game winless run. It could believe its luck had turned, until it saw the Hull result.
Hull lost Oumar Niasse, to a harsh red card, after 25 minutes. Watford’s players, safe in mid-table, are clearly looking forward to their summer holidays. Yet, against 10 men, they easily dominated and created enough chances to win. The difference in attitudes showed after 65 minutes. When Hull cleared a free kick, its players set off toward the opposing goal as if they were in an Olympic spring final. Several Watford men imitated competitors in the 50 kilometer walk. The attack ended with Kamil Grosicki passing for Lazar Markovic to score. Barely 10 seconds earlier, the two men had been a yard from their own goal-line forming a two-man wall.
After that Watford threw in the beach towel. Sam Clucas scored a pretty second. Hull stayed two points ahead of Swansea.
At its best, Swansea is a good team. It has an easier run in. But Hull has a two-point edge and has picked up 19 points in seven home games since Marco Silva took over at the start of the year. If it wins its two remaining home games, against Sunderland and Tottenham, it should stay up.