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Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2016) 14/03/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- It’s 4pm.  We’ve opted against the scrum for the tube in favour of a leisurely walk in the sunshine back to Kings Cross.  There’s a workman painting a doorway on Caledonian Road, the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” rumbles out of his radio.  It’s a perfect soundtrack for what is a necessary but overlooked feature of stunning days like this one… the dazed post-match taking-it-all-in thing.  Sometimes alcohol interrupts, distorts, blurs – not today, I’ve just opened a token first can at 9pm – but there’s always a point where you sit or walk or stand in reflection and your head goes “Wow!”. Our reverie is only interrupted by occasional discussion, fist-waving and encouragement from “neutrals” (presumed Spurs) and one affable group of Gooners who, it seems, were amongst the earlier departures and have been making good use of their time since.

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If the post-match hiatus is a constant there’s much which has changed over the years… specifically since 1987 which is a natural reference point for all who were there, who are old enough to remember that last glittering landmark of GT’s first spell. Slightly less celebrated than that Bardsley-fuelled afternoon at Highbury is the bedlam of the previous round’s three games with Walsall; the first of these, at Fellows Park, featured the rare privilege of wading in urine several centimetres deep in the gents. Today, in the facilities at the Emirates high up in the Gods, people are actually queuing to wash their hands. That’s the gentrification of football, right there. I mention this contrast to ig before kick-off, who reflects that not all things have improved for the better, have they? Actually I do kinda prefer the toilet facilities at the Emirates, cramped as they are, to the more demanding offering at Fellows Park but I let the comment pass. This, after all, is a day for single-mindedness and defiance, not for frivolous debate.

2- That single-mindedness comes to the fore in a first half in which the home side dominate possession and throughout much of which there seems an awful sense of inevitability about proceedings, the suggestion of a point from which the afternoon might spiral downwards as such big games at big grounds have done in the recent past. A tone is set from the off as Arsenal try to get a rhythm going, passing it around at the back and our midfielders and forwards hare after the ball in rotation, as if to formally share and thus minimise impact of chasing-down duties on energy levels. Amidst talk of the home side’s injury concerns it’s been easy to overlook our own defensive precariousness… but Craig Cathcart, like Gabriel and Mertesacker in the home ranks, is fit enough to start and plays his part in a hugely impressive defensive display. Seb Prödl looks ill-suited to the Britos role of playing the ball out from the back, and Nathan Aké is uncharacteristically exposed once or twice as Arsenal focus their energies down their right, but in the face of Arsenal’s nimble passing and flicking and the boldness with which they seek and find forward passes in offensive areas we’re being thoroughly examined and these are minor transgressions. Despite all their movement and ability and despite Elneny ticking away like a clock in the centre of midfield, the home side don’t create an awful lot and such chances as there are are never clean… there’s always someone closing, hassling, harrying, no time for Arsenal to gather their thoughts. They will need to be excellent to play through us and they nearly are, nearly. But not quite. Allan Nyom has a stonking afternoon amongst many stonking afternoons, Alexis Sanchez the first amongst the home ranks to shrug and stamp and look a bit less than happy.

3- The recent problem has of course been at the other end of the pitch, since there’s a considerable difference in effectiveness between a very solid side that nicks a few goals to boot and a very solid side whose main source of goals is going through something of a crisis of confidence. To chastise that source of goals for his difficulties is rather short-sighted, not that this stops Mr Angry in the rows behind us as Ighalo scampers onto the end of the first of a large number of potent looking breaks, only to deliberate and try to squeeze a ball across to his strike partner. As ig observes, the problem with Ighalo being encouraged to pass more is that passing has never really been his thing and as such these entreaties are kinda imploring him to do more of the thing that he’s not very good at at the cost of his best party trick. His lack of confidence manifests itself in these very painful attempts to weave balls through, deliberate and careful enough to be visible to us several staircases up and considerable distance behind the far touchline in this most beautiful and sterile of stadia some weeks in advance, let alone to those detailed to deny our chances.

Little surprise, then, that when the goal comes it involves Iggy having no time to think at all and acting on instinct. It’s pure catharsis, his grin dizzy with relief as much as exaltation. It’s also criminal defending… a long throw, a battling flick from Troy, Iggy doing what he does by turning Gabriel and feeding hungrily off scraps in the box. We have seen Arsenal in full effect this afternoon… elegant and bold and clever and nimble and utterly gutless. Gabriel’s appalling challenge on Deeney is as cowardly as they come – Troy appeared to wave a mischievous red rag in the Brazilian’s excitable direction by suggesting that he (Troy) likes to “let his marker know he’s there” early doors. Having successfully duped his opponent he was entitled to expect a card being waved in the miscreant’s face. Either way… Deeney is precisely what Arsenal haven’t got. There are a number of leaders on the pitch, and none of them are in red… Troy, as ever is at the vanguard. Yet another monstrous performance from a man who has four goals from open play this season, and yet remains the most vital member of the team.

4- Quickly on the back of that one came another one. We’ve talked in a recent report about the satisfying nature of a ball being twatted really hard… well it turns out that a ball being twatted really hard into the top corner is more satisfying still.

That shot from almost exactly our angle…

Words can’t do it justice, so I won’t try… but a joyous thing on so many levels, from it falling to a player so relentlessly positive in everything he’s done despite his limited opportunity to the way ig shouts “Biff!” as the Algerian makes contact to the enormous, jaw-dropping significance of the moment. Two-up at Arsenal, and about to knock the holders out of the Cup.

5- At which point the longest half-hour in any of our lives begins. Whatever the limitations of Arsenal’s performance, they didn’t just roll over and we needed what luck was going. With the benefit of hindsight you look at Iwobi hitting the post and another shot deflecting ferociously and wrong footing Pantilimon but away from the goal when it might have been in and Welbeck, having reduced arrears with a lethal strike that had the remaining Arsenal fans making almost as much noise as they had when whistling Costel’s goal kicks, spurning an open goal… you look at that lot and you think, this was supposed to happen. This was our day. There was of course no such certainty in the upper tier at the time.

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Such moments are special. When you’re going through extremes of emotion that don’t need communicating with those around you because they’re going through exactly the same thing. After more stoppages extended injury time beyond the advertised four minutes, after we’d persuaded ourselves twice, three, four times that this one had to be the last attack we’d have to withstand, tunnel vision… we were going through an extreme together again. Us, the players on the pitch, as the rest of the stadium emptied. What a bloody achievement.

The special games, the special days feature a number of moments that you’ll remember looking back. Think about St Andrews 99 and you remember the noise as you entered the stadium, the gut-wrenching awfulness of Adebola’s early goal, the bloody-mindedness of Johnno diving at people’s feet, the penalties and so on and so on. Well the last of today’s moments came on Caledonian Road, with those affable Arsenal fans. As we walked off, having posed in a daze for selfies, one of these lads grabbed my shoulder and said “win it now. bloody win it”.

We’ll see. Yoooooorns.

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Comments»

1. Stuart Campbell - 14/03/2016

Smashing report Matt.. and much appreciated from an older-than-ever ‘Orn celebrating an extremely scary birthday in the ridiculously exotic Cook Islands. Pal Rob and equally died-in-the-wool Ornsman now resident in Queenstown NZ, was the first to break the news to sleepy Aitutaki residents about the great result. Son Laurence was at the game but sadly decided not to text in the middle of the night (his night not mine!). The link to the phone video of AG’s rocket was a real treat. Our fans jumping up and down like demented nutters was pure class. Loved the ‘ Orns woolly hat in the mayhem. Bet gooners don’t sport them any more. Sad to have missed the game but will be back in time for the semi’s… sweatily wearing my vintage Orns woolly scarf. Oh yes indeed.
(And isn’t big Troy turning more into Luther with every game?)

2. Harefield Hornet - 14/03/2016

Yesterday was one of those special days for all sorts of reasons. The coaches (For a £1) getting there so ridiculously early we found ourselves in the Drayton Park pub by 10.40. The convivial atmosphere in the afore-mentioned, the bonkers burger man outside singing Steve Wonder songs as he dispensed his fare, the landlord for letting us eat it in the pub!, the friendly organised security checks, the stewards in the upper tier who made it possible for my daughter to actually see an away match for a change, (I’ve absolutely nothing against people persistently standing if they want to but great to have a section where people can sit if they don’t want to stand or are unable to stand), the end of Iggy’s goal drought, Adelene’s screamer, the efforts of the whole team and the travelling supporters, the final whistle, getting to Wembley again, You Orns!

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2016

I was loitering outside the Drayton Park for about forty minutes. The burger man a good source of entertainment.

Harefield Hornet - 14/03/2016

Reckon I’ll be paying him ( and the pub) another visit on the 2nd April!

3. Sequel - 14/03/2016

Great report Matt, and great performances from players and fans alike. I have never given so much for the team: today, I can hardly speak, and I applauded so much that my hands actually bled.
With more performances like that, on and off the pitch, we MUST win the damned thing!

4. Mike S - 14/03/2016

Love that video clip! That dude on 14 seconds… That’s you, that is.

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2016

“Could be…”

5. lukefairweather - 14/03/2016

And at roughly 5 seconds there is a bloke to the left giving it that kind of grudging polite applause that only a fan in the wrong end of the ground can muster.

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2016

Yes, saw that. Snigger.

6. Simon - 15/03/2016

I’m working in Sweden at the moment, so watched the game in the Tudor Arms in Stockholm. There was no atmosphere in the pub, but was still amazing to see. I have been there for lots of magical moments, like St Andrews 99, so can’t complain too much at missing this one. Thanks to your powerful report Matt, I can feel the emotion from Sunday and you even brought a tear to my eye!


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