Favourites Arsenal are under pressure as they look to end a nine-year trophy drought. Richard Sutcliffe reports.
OUTSIDE a meeting of Rudyard Kipling devotees, surely nowhere has the word ‘if’ been muttered more times than the Emirates Stadium since the turn of the year.
If only Aaron Ramsey had stayed fit.
If only Theo Walcott hadn’t been injured.
And if only Jack Wilshere’s career hadn’t been so stop-start in recent years.
Arsenal, a side that led the Premier League for a grand total of 128 days this season, were out of the title race by mid-March and this still rankles around N5.
Adding to the frustration is the nine years since the Gunners last lifted a trophy, the FA Cup. Only scratching that itch will truly sate the north London club’s impatient support and tomorrow may well be that day.
Arsene Wenger certainly hopes so, as he eyes what would be his fifth success in a competition that has always had special significance since his childhood in France.
“I have been lucky enough to win it four times,” he said.
“But, unfortunately, we haven’t won it for a long time now so in fact I am even more focused to do well. I would love the club to win the FA Cup again.”
On those days as a schoolboy growing up in Alsace, the 64-year-old Gunners chief recalls: “It was a dream when I was a kid to watch the FA Cup. It was one of the competitions you could watch in black and white on television.
“I don’t remember the two teams (who played in the first final I watched), but what stays in my memory is exactly the place where I sat at school, because we had to pay one Franc to watch,” added Wenger.
“What struck me at the time was the ball was white and the pitch was perfect, absolutely immaculate. I played in a village where the pitch was a disaster.
“The players had their hair well combed, and the managers were relaxed at that time – they joked together on the bench.”
For a long time, this season was shaping up to be Arsenal’s breakthrough year in the Premier League. A decade on from their last triumph, the Londoners set a fearsome pace in the Autumn on the back of new signing Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey’s electric form.
However, a series of heavy defeats against their major rivals soon saw the Gunners caught and, as recently as mid-April, Everton harboured serious hopes of pipping Wenger’s men to fourth place and qualification for the Champions League.
Merseyside hopes were shattered by a five-game winning end to the season for Arsenal, a run that included a 3-0 triumph at the KC Stadium the week after both clubs had battled through to the final.
That storming end to the campaign is one reason why Wenger’s side are overwhelming favourites to lift the Cup, even if their manager is wary of what can happen if the underdogs have their day.
He said: “If you are in the FA Cup everyone can dream of winning it at the start of the season, while the (Premier League) championship – only seven clubs can dream of winning it.
“Last year, Wigan won the FA Cup. This year, you had (League One) Sheffield United in the semi-final and that kind of dream being open to everybody makes the competition special.
“In the (Premier League) championship you can talk and talk, but we know the biggest budget will win it. That open dream is what makes (the FA Cup) special in football.
“In basketball if you play against a team from Division Two, there is absolutely no chance unless you give them 30 points, only our sport can create that excitement because it is uncertain.”
Tomorrow is the first major final for Arsenal since 2011, when Wenger’s side took on Birmingham City in the League Cup decider at Wembley.
As with this year’s FA Cup final, the Gunners were expected to comfortably win. Instead, the Blues pulled off a major shock thanks to a late winner by Obafemi Martins.
That experience means no-one in the Arsenal camp will be taking things for granted ahead of taking on the Tigers.
“Look, you can always slip or have a lack of communication,” said Wenger, reflecting on how a mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny gifted Birmingham their winner. “You can never guarantee that will never repeat. “But what we want to do is just to focus on the day of the game and the way we want to play football. Enjoy it and that is the best way to be at our best.
“No matter what the result will be, this club – and this is always most important – can deal with the consequences of any game,” said Wenger.
“What is important is that we come out of the game and have the feeling that we gave absolutely our best, our total energy to play at our best and then you always accept the consequences.
“No matter how much we talk about it, you can win and lose but you want to come out of the game feeling you have done the maximum to win. (The drought may make it) a little (more difficult) but once you walk over the line you just focus on your football.
“You don’t play with the history, you play with your quality and your desire to play well. It is an opportunity and we have to take a distance with time.”