The team needed a lift after results of recent weeks. A 1-0 win is great but coming back from 2 goals down to win it, is surely going to give the team the boost that we so desperately need. A game of two halves is the old cliche but certainly applies in this scenario. A visit to either Sunderland or Middlesborough is the price of the win and we surely got to fancy getting past them and in the quarter finals.
True to his words, Arsene Wenger opted to play his strongest available line-up. Apart from the change of Francis Coquelin at right back over Johan Djourou and Lukasz Fabianski coming in for Wojciech Szczesny, it was the same team that lost to Manchester United. After a week of the manager being called into question because of his decisions in that game, one would certainly expect a response from the team to show their support of the manager. That was entirely non-existent in the first half.
Alex McLeish set out his Aston Villa side to be a little more adventurous than his Birmingham side used to. Playing a front 3 with 2 holding midfielders and 1 roaming one in Stephen Ireland. Somehow that worked as we found space very limited in the first half with possession mainly kept between the midfield and defence. We could not find the way through a sturdy and well organised Villa side.
But we had almost all of the possession. With every passing minute, you can just see how more and more players in red and white foraging further forward to find the opening goal. Our defensive shape was missing and each time Villa won the ball back, the likes of Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor were pulling away easily to retrieve the pass. One such move caught us out but Laurent Koscielny was on hand to clear it for a corner.
It was from this corner that we conceded. We were at fault on two counts here. The first was that Villa took the short corner and we only had Aaron Ramsey to cover 2 players. No way a single player could defend against two and Robbie Keane was allowed to cross the ball into the box. Inside the box, our players were static and Per Mertesacker could see that Richard Dunne was going for the ball. He neither went with him nor gave any instruction to his fellow team mate of the situation. Fabianski had no chance to save the header.
Disaster struck at the stroke of half time. Another counter attack by Villa and we were split apart again. This time direct from a corner we had at the other end. Ireland had all the time in the world to play Bent in through on goal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thomas Vermaelen tried to cover but couldn’t get close. Bent’s initial shot well parried away by Fabianski but the England striker pounced on the rebound to slot in from an acute angle. The chorus of boos that rang around the stadium going into half time was unnecessary but hardly unjustified.
I’m sure Wenger gave the team a barracking in the dressing room because we come out with renewed vigour and clawed to not only level the tie but went ahead. All in the space of 15 minutes. It was breathtaking to say the least. It showed the spirit and desire that was so lacking in the past couple of weeks. For once, we showed that we wanted it more and we were justly rewarded.
Two penalties slotted home, sandwiching a Theo Walcott goal was enough to send us into the next phase of the competition. Rather ironically, the 2 players who scored for Villa were at fault for conceding the respective penalties. First Dunne was a fraction to slow and clipped Ramsey. The pass from Alex Song to put Ramsey through in the first place was exquisite. No problems for Robin Van Persie, sending Shay Given the other way.
Two minutes later, Walcott picked the ball up on the right and turned Stephen Warnock inside out. Electing to shoot instead of passing to a team mate, Walcott was lucky that the clearance from a Villa player hit him and went straight into the net. I was ecstatic, how the ball went in hardly matters for now. Under par in recent weeks, Walcott made the goal, however lucky he was in the end.
The third goal came just another 5 minutes later. Koscielny who had been in imperious form once again strode majestically forward, bringing the ball out of defence. A return pass later, he was heading towards the penalty box, tracked by Bent who had followed him all the way. No arguments again on the validity of the penalty as the contact came. Once again, RvP dispatched it in the opposite direction of Given’s dive.
Job done and from that moment on, it was about preventing Villa from scoring. We did go on and have a few chances but in the end, the 3 goals salvo was enough for the win. At times, with 30 minutes still on the clock, we might have allowed the opposition to come back at us. However, with the introduction of experienced head in Bacary Sagna, Mikel Arteta and Thierry Henry, we never looked like losing our concentration.
Several players had a very good game. As mentioned before, Koscielny was one of them. The other was Tomas Rosicky. The Czech was tidy in his play and drove forward in a way we’ve not seen for some time. Rosicky has been decent for us in recent games and that can only be a good thing. Ramsey played another full 90 minutes and at the moment, you can see him getting very tired at the end of games. With Arteta now back in the fold and Rosicky’s positive contributions, it will at least give us a chance to rotate in that department.
[update] RvP might face a ban if his elbow on Carlos Cuellar was deemed to be premeditated. It was unnecessary considering we already had the lead then. Seemed intentional from my point of view though lots of differing opinions elsewhere. I dread to think we could lose him for 3 games.
We went through the whole range of emotions with that game. Final result is the only thing that matter. For now, we march forward.