Date: 23rd May 2009 at 3:05pm
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2008-09 has seen us journey to Wembley and Rome and now here we were at the F.A. Cup Final. Sometimes life can sound so much better when you omit tiny details! Unfortunately, a last minute work commitment meant I couldn’t get to the Manchester City semi final, but having trounced Youth Cup holders Manchester City with considerable ease, I was keen to see what these boys could do. I’ve seen glimpses of Wilshere, Lansbury and Frimpong, but largely attended the game as very much a tabula rasa on Arsenal’s all conquering U-18 side.

Arriving at the ground an hour before kick off, the numbers floating around suggested a sizeable crowd was in the offing. Indeed, we were unable to secure our own season ticket seats, which had already been procured, so the chance of a different view was in the offing as we settled in the front row of the upper tier in the North West corner of the ground. It was only the second time I’d watched a game at the Grove from a different view (the first time being in 2007 when I won a couple of Club Level tickets for the Brazil Portugal friendly). It was a case of different view, different team and the sight of Steve Bould manning the touchline was slightly surreal having spent a good deal of my youth peering at his towering frame in the centre of Arsenal’s defence from the West Stand Highbury. What struck me when the sides came out was that Liverpool were a big, physically imposing side, with Arsenal skipper Jay Emmanuel Thomas the only player on our side that could match them for physique.

Liverpool used that power early on too as they had the better of the opening exchanges, with Liverpool keenly harrying and hassling, Bartley, Ayling, Cruise and Eastmond were unable to pass out from the back. Coquelin and Frimpong struggled to impose themselves, though Liverpool, cheered on by a boisterous few hundred in the away section, found chances at a premium. Kennedy briefly threatened in one of a series of set pieces. However, the tide turned when Emmanuel Frimpong fell awkwardly and had to go off injured. Arsenal reshaped as Wilshere dropped back into central midfield, with Sanchez Watt joining lone striker Gilles Sunu. With Wilshere dropping deeper to affect the game, Arsenal took control. Wilshere showed a foreboding glimpse of how indellibly he would mark the game with a cute slide rule pass which set Lansbury through, but a last ditch tackle from Wisdom denied him. Shortly after, it would be the slight of foot of the magician Wilshere again that would take him to the byline, Jay Emmanuel Thomas powered the ball across goal, but Ayala took off the end of Sunu’s toe.

The breakthrough was impending and you knew that Wilshere would be the exponential factor. He wriggled his way past two challenges before inviting another and releasing the ball to Lansbury, who was now unmarked, Lansbury slipped the ball into Sunu, who did extraordinarily well to take the ball into his stride, resist the attentions of Kennedy and caress the ball home. You often see Arsenal’s Carling Cup sides start games slowly before opening up and indulging in a spot of junior Wenger-balland last night was no different. Wisdom was lucky not to receive his marching orders when another Lansbury through ball sent Sunu through, only for the young Frenchman to be cynically hacked down en route to goal. From the resulting free kick, Thomas curled the ball onto the post, Watt reached the rebound first as Clair lunged desperately to take him down for a clearcut penalty. Wilshere impudently skipped up and buried the ball low to Bouzanis’ left.

Young heads briefly escalated to the clouds as Liverpool instantly roared back. Irwin’s right wing cross reached Dalla Valle at the back post and he somehow headed the ball horribly wide. Arsenal’s young Guns couldn’t clear, Buchtmann cut the ball back to Kacaniklic, his first shot ricocheted off of Bartley and sat up ripely for Kacanaklic to smash a devastating volley into James Shea’s top corner. But Arsenal held their nerve and nearly restored their two goal lead on half time when Wilshere yet again arcing himself out some space on the edge of the area, playing Watt into the channel and his pullback was toe poked agaonisingly wide by Lansbury. Half time and 2-1 was a fair reflection given Liverpool’s impressive start, but it was clear that a chasm was opening between the two sides.

And that chasm began to yawn into a canyon style eternity in the second half, with Thomas’ brute strength and fancy footwork allied with Wilshere’s craft were too much for Liverpool. It was not long before Arsenal converted their superiority onto the scoresheet. Wilshere played a ball into Watt on the edge of the area, Watt wriggled free of Kennedy before sumptuously lifting the ball over the advancing Bouzanis. Carlos Vela’s influence is rubbing off it would appear. From there, Liverpool became desperate, Thomas’ arcing ball towards Sunu saw the young Frenchman skip around Bouzanis only to be taken out by the onrushing keeper. Referee Chrsi Foy sympathetically reached for a yellow when a red card was the only option. But the Gunners enervated their sense of injustice by scoring two minutes later with a goal forged in the mines of London Colney. Lansbury’s inswinging corner saw Jay Emmanuel Thomas loft a sweet header into the top corner from a tight angle. With Steve Bould as a coach, you have to expect front post flick ons to be a daily feature of life on the training pitch. He might not have been charging through the midfield, but Thomas’ goal certainly ensured it was up for grabs now.

Arsenal proceeded to toy with their opponents, a knackered Liverpool backline were too tired and befuddled to do anything other than foul. Thomas again wreaked havoc, bearing down on goal with the ball at his feet, Kennedy dragged him down but the ball broke to Rhys Murphy, who curled a Bergkampesque effort narrowly wide. Murphy should have been on the scoreheet by rights in injury time, Coquelin’s through ball found Murphy inside the area and he steered a low shot into the bottom corner. But official sympathy came into play once more as the linesman raised an erroneous flag. The full time whistle came as some relief to Liverpool who were fortunate not to be beaten more resoundingly in the second half. Wilshere was the obvious jewel in the crown, Jay Emmanuel Thomas stood out too, though his tendancy to over elaborate when Arsenal were uber dominant was of slight concern. Coquelin added some necessary steel too in a stellar team performance. I don’t watch enough football of this level to tell you who will make it at Arsenal and who won’t, I suspect you don’t either. All I can say was that I thoroughly enjoyed the way the youngsters played football last night, in the Wengerball manner that the first team is associated with. It’s clear these boys are receiving a first class education whether they make it at Arsenal or not. I very much look forward to travelling to watch them again on Tuesday. Realistically, only complacency will prevent them lifting the trophy. How ironic, Arsenal travelling to Anfield on 26th May and being able to lose by two goals.LD.