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Saturday, 26 February 2011

Arsenal v Birmingham City (Wembley) Carling Cup Final Preview

Hopefully it will look just like this by 6 o'clock tomorrow night

So here we go then, our first Final since 2007. It seems amazing really, given the consistent success under Arsene Wenger, that we have waited four years since our last showpiece occasion. The fact that we have had a four year gap between the big games, and six years since actually winning something (did you know it was six years? I don't think it's been mentioned very much by the media *yawn*). will be reflected in the way Arsenal line up tomorrow. Back in 2007 at Cardiff the team was made up of second-choice players, with the exception of Kolo Toure and Cesc Fabregas - this was how we looked: Almunia - Hoyte, Toure, Senderos, Traore - Walcott, Fabregas, Denilson, Diaby - Adebayor, Baptista. Thierry Henry was injured, but probably wouldn't have played anyway, while Gilberto was inexplicably left out of the side despite playing in the previous games, and being Captain all season. Tomorrow we will be missing only the injured pair of Fabregas and Walcott and the rest of the team will be very much the regulars:
Szczesny - Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy - Song, Wilshere, Nasri - Arshavin, Van Persie, Bendtner (there is a possibility that Diaby will come in instead of Bendtner with Nasri moving wide and Wilshere playing in Fabregas' position).
Back in 2007 we dominated Chelsea for the majority of the game. Abou Diaby was simply too good for them right up to the point when he injured his foot by accidentally kicking John Terry in the head. We took the lead but were then undone by a bad linesman, a worse ref (thank you Howard Webb), poor finishing and Didier Drogba. For all that you left the ground that day proud of the boys (because that's what they were, mere lads) you couldn't help but feel the first-choice team would have wiped the floor with a below-par Chelsea. A trophy went begging because Arsene didn't make sure on the big occasion - a mistake repeated a year later in the semi-final at Tottenham. Tomorrow we know we will not die wondering. If Arsenal don't win then it won't be because the best available team is not out there.
Birmingham's players have the opportunity to become immortal in the history of their Club. Alex McLeish will have them more than fired up for the match. He said last week that they would "get in Arsenal's faces" which should come as no surprise. It didn't go unnoticed by me that he wasn't challenged to explain what he meant by that. Given the history of players under his control "getting in Arsenal's faces" it was a disturbing thing to hear for this particular Gooner.
Nikola Zigic has really started to show his form in recent weeks and he will be a huge (literally) handful for Djourou and Koscielny tomorrow. You know that Birmingham will play to his particular strengths - they would be crazy not to - and the match against Stoke on Wednesday might just have been the ideal preparation for Arsenal's back-line. Birmingham also have great delivery from wide with the likes of Seb Larsson particularly dangerous. Lee Bowyer will be his usual nasty self in midfield so I hope Mike Dean gets a handle on things early, and we don't get a repeat of his assaults on Sagna from New Years Day. Barry Ferguson has been a real surprise in midfield for City since his arrival. His previous incarnation as a Premier League player at Blackburn was far from a success, but he is a decent footballer and a more genuine hard-man than Bowyer. Jack Wilshere will have to match the physicality of Ferguson before he can let his feet do the talking. They also have Alex Hleb who might yet be fit - I just hope he sticks to his regular ploy of going round in circles and doesn't influence the game as he might on a big pitch.
I've just been pointed in the direction of today's Sun newspaper where their Midlands correspondent, Dean Scoggins, appears to identify Johan Djourou as Arsenal's weak-link, and says that Birmingham will target the big Swiss. I hope he's right about that - I'd far rather they target Djourou than Koscielny. I know Mr Scoggins personally and will be offering him my opinion on his journalism shortly!
Enough about Birmingham and what they might do. Arsenal have enough in the team tomorrow to beat any side in the country, not least Birmingham City. Robin Van Persie is back and he becomes our leader in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. There can be no doubt that if Wilshere, Nasri and Arshavin provide the service then, if Robin continues his form tomorrow, Arsenal will score goals. I really fancy Van Persie to take to the big occasion. RVP came of age as an Arsenal player in the FA Cup semi-final in 2005 against Blackburn at Cardiff. He came off the bench to score two late goals and ensure our place in the Final. In the Final itself he showed his bottle by stepping up to put his penalty in the top corner. RVP is a big game player, and tomorrow is his stage.
Jack Wilshere is being touted as the main man for Arsenal in the absence of Cesc - not least by Arsene Wenger. I think this is pressure that the young man could well do without, to be quite honest. Cup Final's often overawe younger players, no matter how good they might be. Jack has not scored anything like as many goals for the first-team as we might expect from him. With no Fabregas in the side he will hopefully feel less pressure to pass the ball when well-placed for a shot. Anyone who watched Wilshere score regularly for the Reserves will know he is capable of scoring from almost anywhere - how we'd love a Wembley spectacular from Arsenal Jack.

I have a very excited five year-old in the house looking forward to his first game at Wembley. He's learned all the songs ahead of the game (though his version of the Arshavin song is missing certain expletives) and is singing them endlessly. My first trip there to see Arsenal (I'd been to a couple of schoolboy internationals) was in 1988 versus Luton Town. I had never experienced noise like it when Martin Hayes, and then Alan Smith, scored to put us ahead. Then it all started to go wrong and I had never known such disappointment when we eventually threw it away that day. I hope that my boy gets all the good experiences tomorrow, but none of the disappointment I had that afternoon. I can't wait to get there and buy him his first Wembley flag (I was still using my 1988 vintage when we played Newcastle there in 1998). The fun bus is leaving Dover at 9.30am, packed with Gooners on their way to see the boys hopefully end the silverware drought. We know that we might never get a better opportunity to win something, we just need the players to show they have the temperament to get the job done. I don't care if it's 1-0 with an own-goal in injury-time, or even on penalties, as long as they find a way to win. I have the Sky+ set for the game, and then all the reaction on Sky Sports News - if we win then I'll watch it when I get home, if we lose I'll delete it straight away! I can't wait for tomorrow and I pray that we have a Wembley occasion to remember.


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