WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON — At one time, it seemed as if we were 10 minutes away from the point at which Arsene Wenger’s reign over Arsenal would become untenable. In this crucial semi-final, the Gunners trailed to lowly Wigan by a single goal. Per Mertesacker had tripped the lively Callum McManaman, and Jordi Gomez tucked the resulting spot-kick away with typical aplomb. Arsenal were on their way out of the FA Cup. This felt epochal.
However, by the end of the game, Wenger had his arms aloft in celebration. Arsenal had escaped from the tightest of situations, with the manager’s position and their FA Cup hopes intact.
Wenger was spared by a superb penalty performance from Lukasz Fabianski. When the match went to a shootout, Arsenal had reason to be confident. As Wenger pointed out in his post-match press conference, Fabianski had picked the right side when Gomez scored during normal time. The omen was good, and the Pole saved Wigan’s first two penalties to give Arsenal a decisive advantage in the shootout.
Wenger: "Fabianski has shown what a good goalkeeper he is today. He put us in a good position in the penalty shootout" #AFCvWAFC— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) April 12, 2014
Arsenal will return to Wembley in May with a chance to end a nine-year wait for silverware. If the final is anything like the semi, few fans will be able to watch.
This was a desperately poor performance from Arsenal. All season long, they have displayed a worrying tendency to wilt under pressure, and for much of this match, it looked as if they’d do the same at Wembley.
Arsenal looked bereft of ideas, leggy and limp. On the touchline, Wenger paced anxiously. Even when Arsenal grabbed a late equaliser through the redemptive figure of Mertesacker, Wenger didn’t look settled. Amy Lawrence of The Guardian writes, "Wenger was so fraught, he looked dizzy when Per Mertesacker's equaliser allowed him to breathe again. Still the tension ate at him, as an air of the unpredictable descended."
During extra time, the match descended into a drab yet tense affair, with players regularly dropping to the ground to cope with cramp. On his return after an absence of nearly four months, Aaron Ramsey was forced to play for 110 minutes. In the stands, the fans looked every bit as drained of energy.
As penalties loomed, supporters began to dread the supposed lottery. Fortunately, in Fabianski, Arsenal had a winning ticket. His contribution took the pressure off Arsenal’s takers, who all scored, showing uncharacteristic nerve and admirable technique.
Fabianski’s heroics will have done his case for starting the final no harm whatsoever. Although the Pole looks set to leave Arsenal this summer, his performances this season have been the best of his time in England. The Gunners will be sorry to lose him.
At the end, Arsenal celebrated wildly, such was the outpouring of relief. Wenger headed straight into the tunnel, perhaps for a moment of quiet contemplation. Had they lost, his reputation would have been tarnished.
It would be unfair to say the result papers over the cracks at Arsenal. However, it hardly cemented Wenger’s credibility as the man to take the Gunners forward. On a day when Everton leapfrogged Arsenal into fourth place, this was a worryingly ragged performance. Arsene Wenger may yet opt to stay down, but appearing in the FA Cup final will offer him a superb opportunity to go out on a high.