“You see that FA Cup and you want to get hold of it, you want to kiss it. There’s something about it that’s magical.” — Dave Whelan on the little tin drinking vessel.
There’s little doubting just how much yesterday’s game meant to Wigan Athletic fan, player and chairman alike. The bodies that took to the field on Tuesday night were mere husks of their normal selves, their souls already embarking upon the long walk to Wembley. What, you didn’t think spirits could board motorised transport, did you? Cars pass right through ghosts, if Hollywood is to be #believed.
And it’s no surprise. Wembley is huge, not just in physical size but the metaphorical sense also. To reach the Gleaming Arches is a gargantuan achievement in itself, especially for a small town situated somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool’s ornate, expensive mantelpiece bookends. “‘Ere, Our Jim, get the Wigan sideshow down off the shelf – I fancy a good laugh tonight, la’!”
But I didn’t need to tell you that. You know full well what it’s all about, having lived through it a whopping three times in the last year. If you’re anything like those players’ spirits, you’ll have worn eleven layers of boot leather from your reinforced soles – the pop-up foot massage booths at Wigan North Western are fully justified, even if the prices aren’t. “Ah, what the heck – it’s Wembley day…”
Any lingering hope that Sir Ben Watson would make a miraculous last-minute recovery was quickly extinguished when he appeared, suit and all, at the window of the ITV Sport television box. But inebriated renditions of the Starship smash hit ‘We Beat Man City With a Watson Goal‘ did not betray any disappointment. Not even a harrowing loss would have stopped the massed ‘Ticsmen enjoying their day… in fact I am unsure how many were actually conscious as the game began.
Frame one, Wigan to break.
The first half was reminiscent of a tag team snooker match between 22 drunken barflies. Ever since Yaya Sanogo poked the elusive Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volley-cross into the loving arms of Scott Carson, neither team enjoyed an extended stint at the table. But this was to be expected, as the red balls were bunched against the top cushion, forcing an extended strategic battle of Steve Davis proportions.
That’s not to suggest the half was boring – FA Cup Semi Finals seldom are, even with relatively few goals scored. The Premier League side fashioned at least two further openings, some of which also featured Sanogo. But his subsequent effort, which flew some 10 feet wide of the upright, was evidence the France U21 international had yet to find his feet. Quite literally – in one instance, the ball seemed to gravitate from one heel to the other as if his boots were magnetised and the ball made of steel. It was a good job, too, as Carson and his mountain man beard would have had to make another save. Possibly.
It’s funny when it happens to someone else
Half time was a kick in the groin for Arsenal, but there was an extra one to follow. Following an arm wrestle with Callum McManaman, Nacho Monreal hobbled away holding a rather delicate part of his anatomy, which became so red raw he would have to be removed from the field of play.
But before the Spanish left back could be substituted, referee Michael Oliver was signalling for a penalty to Wigan, and guess who won it? No, not Ben Watson, you mug. Callum ’60 minutes’ McManaman had his legs taken from him in cruel fashion, not that he would have been *too* bothered about it.
It was at least three hours before Jordi Gomez could take his penalty because *somebody* had pilfered Monreal’s medicinal Irn Bru. Nick Powell, who returned late from the half time break, was conspicuous in his absence. No matter, as Gomez regained his penalty prowess at just the right time with an emphatic finish to give the holders a lead. Game on, brother.
Phase two, initiate
When McManaman was replaced by Nick Powell, however, Latics lost much of their attacking impetus. Barring pen man Jordi, the Cup Final man of the match had been the single biggest threat to Arsenal’s own progression hopes – had this been a final, Macca would certainly have remained, maybe even up to the (first) final whistle. But with five Championship games sandwiched between now and the second week in May, the Football League would have to take priority over the FA Cup. Oh, boo!
The out-of-form Powell joined a flagging Fortune in the final third, though both spent an awful lot of time as glorified defenders. Since Arsenal’s fightback had begun, the clock was ticking so slowly you’d think it was running backwards. At the peak of their power play, Carson’s old friend Sanogo troubled the woodwork, while Oxlade-Chamberlain fired wide.
And then, the equaliser. An absolutely delighted Per Mertesacker emerged at the back post to redirect Oxlade Chamberlain’s long-range effort past the seemingly unbeatable Carson to notch up one hundred points for the Top Four side and their substantial away following. Rosler immediately picked up the phone to check his one-goal insurance policy was still valid.
Wats- er, Caldwell Time
With Watson time fast approaching, comeback kid Gary Caldwell would make a surprise appearance thanks to Ramis’ iffy hammy. What price on a last minute goal from the Scotsman?
Well, Latics did fashion one opportunity to snatch victory from the very hands of the cup-hungry Gunners. Jordi Gomez sent in an ominous free kick from the left wing, but two Arsenal defenders (and perhaps the goalkeeper) combined Transformers-style to head/punch the danger clear. I think – one can’t be sure as there were too many men stood within two feet of each other for anyone but the slow-mo man to know for certain.
The game ground to an almost complete halt somewhere in extra time. Oxlade-Chamberlain *did* hit the crossbar in the 111th minute (Nelson strikes again?), but it was clear that the holders would not be beaten over 120, and the tie would be settled on penalties.
Comment on a lottery? Have you no shame, JWAW?
Donning my Captain Hindsight cap once more, it was a mistake to let Gary Caldwell take the first penalty. But who was to deny him his chance of a Watson-style comeback goal? Well, Lukasz Fabianski, as it happens. Hey, is that the first time I’ve mentioned him? Certainly, I haven’t looked up the correct spelling of his name up to now, so it must be true. Hmm.
With no Watson or Maloney to call upon, the Latics penalty-taking line up was sufficiently weakened. And it was to prove costly – Arsenal were handed an early and ultimately game-winning advantage as they raced to a 2-0 shootout lead. Beausejour and McArthur converted their spot kicks, but the Gunners were so proficient that Wigan’s number one taker Jordi Gomez didn’t even have the opportunity to put boot to leather. I think we can chalk that one up as a strategic error on Rosler’s part.
But it would be inappropriate to finish on a negative note. I prefer to view yesterday’s game as an extended dress rehearsal for Latics’ next trip to Wembley sometime next month, and in that sense it was great preparation. We now have a whopping five days (!) to recuperate for the umpteenth home game in a row, and I’m going to need every last one of them after all that. To paraphrase Arnold…