Whether you treat the Carling Cup as an important competition or not, this is the kind of defeat that hurts. To lose a final in that manner is terrible. Gutted. There are no other words to describe it. That defeat meant 1 out and still 3 more to go.
There are still 3 more competitions that we’re involve in this season. It does not make this defeat any easier to take. But how the team picks themselves up after such a demoralising defeat will speak volumes of their characters. Whether we rise up and take this learn from this or whether it breaks the team. That will show us the true resolve of the team.
With Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott out of this game, Arsene Wenger had some tough decisions to make. To his credit, he did picked the best players available to him. That, with the exception of Tomas Rosicky. We knew Birmingham will rely on their strength in height and look to score during set-pieces. For that matter, it would have been better to have Nicklas Bendtner in the starting line-up than Rosicky.
We did not start well. Birmingham were pressing early on and limited our time on the ball. In fact, they were unfortunate not to take the lead when Lee Bowyer was brought down in the box, only to be flagged offside. Wojciech Szczesny can count himself to be a very lucky man, as the replay showed Gael Clichy playing the Birmingham thug to be well onside. It could be the Champions League final all over again. We definitely benefited from a poor line call.
Somehow that jolted us into action. Andrey Arshavin wriggled free inside the box but shot straight at Ben Forster. The latter would eventually thwart us for the rest of the match. It was then that we started to have more of the possession but failed to find openings in the Birmingham defence.
It has happened before and it happened again in this match. In control for much of the game and then we concede via a corner kick. Bacary Sagna’s misplaced pass was the mistake that lead to the corner. No one picked up Roger Johnson’s run from deep and his header found a towering Nicola Zigic, who glanced it past the on-rushing Szczesny. Not the kind of start Arsenal were looking for. When we were already finding it hard to penetrate, now Birmingham have a lead to defend.
However, we did managed to draw level right before half time. Arshavin was up to his tricks inside the penalty box and somehow fashioned a cross into the path of Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman converted with another right footed volley. RvP is beginning to rack up some goals with his right foot and that is good to see. In scoring the equaliser, he somehow managed to injure himself and probably that was the reason he was taken out midway in the second half.
Half time level, with everything still to play for. Birmingham struggled in the second half. Fast tiring players from all the chasing and pressuring, as well as a couple of injuries are part of the reasons. Yet unsurprisingly, we did not seize the initiative. Johnson landed awkwardly and was limping for the rest of the game but no one took him on for pace.
Cracks were appearing in the blue side of the match but we seemed to reluctant to take advantage of that. Bendtner came on for what looked like an injured RvP but the second substitution of Marouane Chamakh for Arshavin was baffling. Granted, it wasn’t the Russian’s best performance but he was effective when called upon. Surely taking out Rosicky was the better option.
Despite that, we still managed to create a few chances. All of which were saved by Forster. I shall wait for the day opposition keepers save their worst days for us. The best of the lot was the rasping drive from outside the box from Samir Nasri. The Frenchman was becoming more and more influential since moving away from hugging the touchline.
Just when we thought we couldn’t find the breakthrough and would have to settle for extra-time, Birmingham scored. On the balance of play, they did not deserve the goal. For most of the second half, the game was played inside Birmingham’s half of the field. A classic punt up field by Forster was missed by Zigic and Johan Djourou.
Laurent Koscielny was on hand to clear it but definitely received a last minute shout from his keeper to leave it. Szczesny will not want to look back at what happened next. An easy catch turned out to be a fumble and Obafemi Martins had the easiest goal in his life. A tap in from the penalty spot with nothing between him and the goal line.
It was a fatal error. With just 5 minutes left of playing time, including injury time, we could not find a way back.
Tactically, Birmingham did not do anything we did not expect. Which is why it was hard to take this defeat. Sloppy defending cost us the opening goal and likewise for the second. That apart, we rarely were at the races in this game. Massive possession counted for nothing when we could not find any openings. While it was good that we then resorted to long shots but most of them were straight at Forster.
So, in the end, our trophy drought continues. It will be interesting to see how the team respond after this shattering defeat. Till then, I’ll be reliving the horror end to this cup final. Absolutely gutted.