LONDON—It was not necessarily convincing but, in its own way, it was impressive.
It could prove to be incredibly important too—only time will tell, but history could prove Arsenal’s victory over Liverpool on Sunday to be one of the club’s most significant results of the season.
“Successful league seasons often come with cup runs,” Arsene Wenger wrote in his programme notes ahead of the game. “If you win in the FA Cup it puts you in a better condition for the rest of the season.”
Wenger may hope the FA Cup run spurs Arsenal to one of their primary aims in the Premier League title or the Champions League final, but for the fans the feeling appears to be the FA Cup may just be the best chance the club has this season of ending an infamous silverware drought that now extends nearly nine years.
The Champions League, beginning again with Wednesday’s first leg against Bayern Munich in the last-16 round of the competition, looks a formidable proposition for a squad that is thinner than most of Europe’s elite.
The club also remains firmly in the hunt in the Premier League, but one point off the pace and with an arguably harder run-in than either of their nearest rivals, it too will take an impressive effort to emerge victorious.
The FA Cup in contrast seems set up nicely for the North London club. Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United are out and Arsenal avoided Manchester City in Sunday’s quarter-final draw.
If they can now beat Everton (again at home) they will be just one step from the final, nine years on from their last trophy, earned at the Millennium Stadium. Not to be disrespectful, but if the draw goes their way, it might only be a Championship side blocking their path to that showpiece occasion.
Perhaps that is why Wenger’s team selection was not greeted with unanimous approval. Where he could rotate, he did; changing the goalkeeper, both full-backs and lead striker to give his preferred starters some much-needed rest.
Liverpool, in contrast, only swapped their goalkeeper and the almost ever-present Jordan Henderson out of their starting XI—with few surely able to argue that, on recent form, Daniel Agger replacing Kolo Toure was any downturn in quality.
Was Reds boss Brendan Rodgers surprised when he saw the Arsenal team?
“Not really,” the Northern Irishman told reporters afterwards. “They have a great squad and they have a big game coming up on Wednesday [against Bayern Munich].”
Wenger, for his part, maintained the seven changes he made from the team that faced Manchester United were all made for either “medical” or “technical” reasons.
However, after avoiding (if only just) the early capitulation that proved their undoing at Anfield in that 5-1 evisceration last week, it was Arsenal who played the better football in the first half, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain giving his side the lead after debutant striker Yaya Sanogo—”For his first performance, he was excellent,” Wenger opined—had seen his volley blocked by Steven Gerrard.
Liverpool had their chances either side of that opener (Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez both being denied by Lukasz Fabianski, who was impressive) and then at the start of the second half Oxlade-Chamberlain turned provider, running in behind the Liverpool defence to get onto Mesut Ozil’s astute through ball, before cutting back perfectly for Lukas Podolski to beat Brad Jones.
Two goals clear, Arsenal were cruising.
It is rarely so simple for the Gunners, however, and a needless trip in the box on Suarez by Podolski sparked a 10-minute spell where Arsenal threatened to throw the game away. Gerrard converted the resultant penalty and moments later Liverpool perhaps should have had another—as Suarez again went down after Oxlade-Chamberlain body-checked all of the Uruguayan but touched none of the ball.
“The penalty we got was clear,” Rodgers stated. “The second one was even clearer.”
Rodgers’ tactical changes threatened to further change the tie—with the bold decisions to remove Aly Cissokho for Jordan Henderson, switch John Flanagan to left-back and play Raheem Sterling as an attack-minded right-back—quickly brought joy, while Wenger took a bit to get to grips with.
Initially, he brought Santi Cazorla on for Podolski to cover that wing, but when Sterling continued to sparkle—this was a performance that would again have caught England coach Roy Hodgson’s eye—he felt compelled to then switch Cazorla to the right, sacrificing Oxlade-Chamberlain to add Kieran Gibbs just ahead of Nacho Monreal down the left.
Even then, Liverpool continued to pull and push Arsenal out of shape—with Gerrard occasionally dropping into a defensive three so Flanagan, Henderson, Allen and Sterling could flood the midfield and move into awkward areas.
There were further scares, but Arsenal held on. They are in the quarter-finals, with another home tie to look forward to.
“When you have to take the initiative at 2-0 down, that is enough to create chances against any team,” Wenger said afterwards, by way of explanation for Liverpool’s late onslaught. “Liverpool are a very strong team, they had some chances but we had some very good chances as well.
“You could feel there was a clinical desire in my team to take every opportunity, and I think that is why it was a great game between two good teams. Everyone questions the FA Cup, but today it delivered a great football game.”
“Hard to say,” Rodgers responded, when asked if the exit from their final cup competition would now help Liverpool in the Premier League run-in. “Right now the exit is a bitter pill to take, and we will have to go back and lick our wounds.”
Arsenal will now focus on the intimidating challenge posed by Bayern Munich, with all those who missed out against Liverpool expected to be available (Mikel Arteta, unfortunately, is suspended—but Olivier Giroud is unlikely to be dropped despite apologising earlier on Sunday for some off-field indiscretions).
Much has been made about how last season’s tie against Bayern Munich, which ended with the Gunners going down fighting with a 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena, sparked Arsenal’s rejuvenation; inspiring them to go on the Premier League run that secured their Champions League participation for another term, and then going on this season to push themselves into the title frame in a way they have not quite done for nearly a decade.
As pessimistic, even negative as it may seem, the second meeting with Bayern may come to be regarded as having the opposite effect. There is no guarantee Arsenal will progress—Bayern, after Saturday’s 4-0 win over Freiburg, are now 16 points clear in the Bundesliga—and the second leg lifts the curtain on a treacherous run of fixtures that could well define the league campaign: Tottenham (a), Chelsea (a), Man City (h), Everton (a).
A few bad results among those, and once again Arsenal could be out of the running in the two competitions they are most keen to contend in.
So often that has been the case over the past nine seasons—the method of disappointment has been varied, but the result has always ended up the same.
If that proves to be the case again this term, then at least Arsenal might still have the FA Cup to fall back on (the quarter-final against Everton will be played before the second leg with Bayern).
After the game, Wenger refused to dwell on Jose Mourinho’s recent comments that he is a “specialist at failure.”
“I’m embarrassed for him,” was all he would say. “I’m more disappointed for Chelsea than for me."
After some cajoling, he added: “I’m not interested in the subject, and that is genuine. Honestly, I cannot force my interest in things that do not interest me. What interests me is things that happen on the pitch.”
Nevertheless, in his own inartful way Mourinho had a point—tangible success has been conspicuous by its absence in recent seasons. Wenger might prefer to win the Premier League or the Champions League this season (and continued qualification for Europe's top competition is always a commendable achievement) but, at some point, winning any trophy is better than nothing.
Still in the FA Cup, Arsenal still have a great chance to do that.