Carling Cup Final Preview: A Time For Winners
‘Hardaker’s Folly*’ is fifty this year, today the 51st final of the League Cup. It is also Arsenal’s first final at the ‘new’ Wembley Stadium. It is always a privilege to be at any final in which Arsenal participate, that this is the ‘debut’ adds a little extra spice to the occasion.
And this has the air of a Débutante’s Ball. This is the Arsenal squad’s Coming of Age, the chance to cross the Rubicon, acknowledged as Winners rather than potentials. Victory today ends the ‘Trophy Drought‘ of five wilderness (© lazyhacksrus plc) years – yes, it is still five years since Arsenal last won a trophy until May, when six will have passed.
In keeping with Arsène’s reign at the club, a victory will have to be achieved with key personnel missing. Despite the inconsistency of the final ball, Theo Walcott will be missed on the right and centrally where he offers another avenue of danger for a lightening break, eleven goals and five assists cannot be taken lightly.
More painfully, Cesc will not lead the team onto – and on – the pitch, injury robbing him of the chance to add to his FA Cup winners medal. There is a certain symmetry in Robin van Persie replacing him as captain, mirroring that afternoon in Cardiff when the Dutchman was the Spaniard’s replacement with five minutes of normal time remaining.
Fàbregas’ absence in the middle of the pitch is the hardest to replace, such is his influence on the side. And his replacement will define Arsenal’s approach to the match, as well as who will come in on the right.
The obvious combination seems to me to be Nasri / Bendtner. The Frenchman has been in imperious form this season, when the ballot papers go out this week to the PFA members for their choice, forget Gareth Bale, Samir Nasri is the only serious candidate for Player of the Year.
Bendtner meanwhile has shown he is capable of producing telling involvement from the right side of the attack, despite his self-professed loathing of that position in the team. Equally, he provides more aerial threat at set-pieces and having exposed Stoke’s supposedly well-organised defence at The Emirates last week, we should perhaps not be too quick to dismiss this option.
Tomáš Rosický could likewise come to the right of midfield, this afternoon I cannot see him dropping into the central role simply because Andrey Arshavin has recovered his best form. Had the Russian still been out of sorts, I suspect that Wenger would have left Nasri on the left. As it is, Arshavin is back towards his best and surely the best option with the current injuries. Bendtner though, I think, will get the nod.
Wenger could go with Diaby or Denilson, moving Nasri to the right but each has drawbacks. Whatever the player may say, Diaby is not match fit. He could provide the physical presence to counter Birmingham but it is not going to be necessary. The size of the Wembley pitch means Arsenal can spread their play to neuter any attempt by their opponents to compact play.
Denilson meanwhile would offer the opportunity for Jack Wilshere to showcase his talents, allowing the England youngster to push forwards more assertively than he perhaps might do with Fàbregas in the team. Wilshere is being identified by all and sundry, including his manager, as the key to this afternoon. The England international has progressed beyond expectations this season and must surely be the Young Player of the Year, if such awards are to be taken seriously.
Birmingham know all about his good and bad points, Fàbregas’ absence means he will take a more dominant role. Without doubt it is the biggest afternoon of his club career and the continued highs have not seen the player overawed by anything thrown at him this season. He has had week’s where his performances have not met with the expectations thrust upon his shoulders yet there has been nothing to suggest in his recent form that a dip with additional responsibility can be envisaged.
The starting line-up I expect Arsène to field is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy; Nasri, Song, Wilshere; Bendtner, van Persie, Arshavin
Crucially for Arsenal, this game is being played out in their minds. Birmingham have not beaten Arsenal outside of the second city since October 1957; Arsenal has lost just once in the past nineteen meetings between the two teams. Much talk in the press recently has been of psychological tests used on the younger players.
This is a familiar pressure on the squad in unfamiliar surroundings. This is about taking the tag of overwhelming favourites and not letting it become a burden, complacency robbing play of its usual vibrancy. Bacary Sagna hinted that this barrier will not exist this afternoon, hunger and desire for victory focussing their minds.
A time for winners to emerge, wearing the red and white of Arsenal. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.
* When Alan Hardaker, then Secretary of the Football League, first conceived the Football League Cup, he envisaged a structure in the professional game that had five divisions of twenty teams and less fixture congestion. It is a tournament that had it’s heyday for two decades from 1967, the first Wembley final, until the lustre started to wain as the Premier League came to fruition.
Hardaker got it wrong, his baby is now consistently viewed as a cause of fixture congestion and derided by most top clubs as a result. Five divisions of eighteen teams had less chance of success than his original plans which were vetoed by the club chairmen anyway, but is the only way this competition can be ‘happily’ accommodated into the league season.
Posted on February 27, 2011, in Arsenal, Carling Cup, Football, Premier League, Premiership, Soccer and tagged Arsenal, birmingham city, Carling Cup, Football, Premier League, Soccer. Bookmark the permalink. 519 Comments.