Date: 25th January 2010 at 11:57am
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Getting home at 03.00 is not the brightest idea when one has to leave home again at 05.30. So after a long, cold shower, designed to shake away beer induced cobwebs, I mournfully left my untroubled bed, looking over my shoulder at it like a man sent to war saying a tearful goodbye to his sweetheart. Too early even for the incompetents of London Underground, it was to be a long bus journey to Angel, spent largely fighting manfully to stay awake and not miss my stop. Thankfully, London transport will always provide you a host of chattering nutters in the early hours of the morning, whose presence fills you with just enough anxiety to prevent you from falling asleep and waking up in Walthamstow. Nobody wants to wake up in Walthamstow.

F.A. Cup away fixtures are always subject to extra allocations and Arsenal always sell them out easily, which adds to the atmosphere in comparison with a humdrum league encounter. Many are lured by the exciting one off nature of a Cup tie, others see the extra allocation and subsequently simple nature of getting a tickets a good way of boosting their away credits. (At Arsenal, tickets for Cup Finals are distributed to the season ticket holders with the most away credits. One or two away credits will virtually guarantee you a ticket). With a 5,000 throng seated in the South Stand and returning legend Sol Campbell back in the ranks, the spirits were high and the noise resplendent. Stoke on the other hand had left swathes of tickets unsold. I detect that attendances are lower in the F.A. Cup from teams outside of the top 4 cartel, possibly a reflection on how uncompetitive league has become until this year. With ourselves Liverpool, United and Everton out and Spurs facing a tricky replay at Elland Road; it will be interesting to see if that trend continues in the next round. Speaking of continuing trends, the game offered its first significant moment after 70 seconds, as Arsenal continued the trend of coming a cropper to a Rory Delap long throw. Stoke won the throw early on, Campbell barked instructions and positioned his team mates. There was a difference in approach to last year, each Arsenal defender man marking on this occasion, as opposed to the zonal marking deployed at the Britannia last season. In fairness, that approach worked well for the rest of the match, but Arsenal were caught cold when Delap`s low, flat trajectory sailed towards Fabianski, but Ricardo Fuller stole in unmarked to beat him to the ball and nudge it into the net.

Arsenal were shell shocked and took a while to establish a grip on the game. But for an excellent interception from Sol Campbell from Fuller`s cut back, Mamady Sidibe might well have doubled the Potters` advantage. The away side gradually re-established a semblance of composure, Walcott played a looped ball into Carlos Vela, but Danny Higginbotham nicked in with a last ditch tackle. The referee gave a goal kick. I seriously wonder if the referee or his accompanying linesmen had any idea of the rules governing corners and goal kicks, as they seemed to get simple calls in that respect horrendously wrong on at least three occasions. Stoke offered occasional threat from set pieces and throw ins, but Arsenal worked their way back into the game, despite having a clear lack of presence upfront, with Jay Emmanuel Thomas looking a long way off the pace and Walcott cutting a disinterested figure. But when Arsenal`s equaliser came, it was fittingly scrappy for a contest lacking in technical quality. Glen Whelan blocked Carlos Vela`s run from the edge of the area and Arsenal had a free kick on the corner of the eighteen yard box. For all the world it looked as though Cesc would shoot, but he slyly teed up Denilson in a central position and his low shot took a deflection as it ruffled the bottom corner of the net. At the conclusion of the half, it was Arsenal`s turn to threaten Stoke with a flurry of set pieces, but none came to fruition. Half time with the scores level was just about fair given the contest. Stoke had begun brightly, Arsenal have now gone behind in all but one of their games in 2010. With the clutch of four fixtures we have coming up; repetition of that particular trend will be incredibly costly.

From the event of the equaliser, I was incredibly confident we would go on to win the game, particularly with the likes of Rosicky, Eduardo, Arshavin and Ramsey on the bench. However, Stoke took the game by the scruff of the neck and looked the stronger, more dangerous side in the second half. Glen Whelan`s out swinging corner finding Ricardo Fuller in the area, but Fabianski beat away his effort with an impressive instinct save. Fabregas had a wicked 25 yard drive deflect just over the bar, but Arsenal lacked the guile upfront to make their possession count. Dean Whitehead found space between Arsenal`s midfield and defence and played a pass into Ricardo Fuller, who used the space that had opened up in front of him and smashed the ball over the bar when an altruistic streak would have seen him looking for his colleague Delap, who was onside, unmarked and in on goal. Arsenal were struggling to create any significant openings at the other end, Jay Emmanuel Thomas` guided header put Vela through, but the angle was against him and the ball would not settle, causing him to lash his volley across goal. In their desire to avoid a replay, Arsenal were pushing on and Stoke were cleverly adopting the counter attack. Sidibe`s low right wing cross looked destined to find Etherington on the back post but Francis Coquelin stretched out a foot to toe end the ball out of play. Arsene went all in and revealed some trump cards, Arshavin, Ramsey and Eduardo replacing Coquelin, Thomas and Walcott. Walcott`s performance had been particularly disappointing, his lack of sharpness with the ball was perhaps understandable, but his complete lack of interest in tracking back saw Fabregas puff out his cheeks and do his running for him on the right flank. Whilst the application is admirable, Cesc will have to learn that, as skipper, he would be better served verbally enforcing Walcott`s responsibilities. Being a captain doesn`t always mean being a nice guy. Then again, William Gallas learned how sensitive and precious people are nowadays the hard way, so it`s perhaps little wonder that his successor as captain is not comfortable administering a telling off.

Arsenal went for broke and pushed on in their desperation to avoid a reply. On the morning of the game, we always swap predictions on the game ahead. Lord Lowe`s was thusly, that with the scores at 1-1, Arsenal would over commit in their desperation to avoid a replay and lose a late goal. Such sage prophesy was given valediction when an Arsenal attack broke down with Traore high up the pitch. A mixture of inexperience in the full back positions and lack of recovery pace in the centre back positions left Arsenal exposed as Sidibe raced to the by-line, clipped in a precise cross and Ricardo Fuller rose to head home a simple chance from close range. From there, Arsenal never really looked like retrieving the game. Vela`s pull back was met by Ramsey, but he could only steer a difficult chance over the bar. Stoke broke away again when a tired looking Craig Eastmond surrendered possession to Matthew Etherington, he nipped down the left wing, leaving the creaking limbs of Silvestre and Campbell trailing in his wake and crossed the ball for Dean Whitehead to tap in a simple chance from close range. Arsenal were out of the cup, disappointingly so given the calibre of the potential opposition that has been deforested for us.

In the end, it would be incredibly difficult to argue against the fact that Stoke deserved their victory. When pegged back to 1-1 they cleverly exploited the counter attack and in the closing stages, the younger players not used to competition of this level tired, whilst our two centre backs tired for different reasons. Sol Campbell did however have an impressive match, assuming responsibility for organising the back line and using his physical stature to good effect. Arsenal went for broke at 1-1 when I would have been very comfortable with a replay; confident that a scratch side could have disposed of Stoke. That Arsenal have become so frightened of cup replays is lamentable, I think it fosters a mentality that the cup is unimportant whilst also sending an explicit message that the manager doesn`t believe his squad can manage it. Fatigue is as much mental as it is physical, when you`re winning games, you don`t feel tired. Arsenal have come out of a congested period with good results in spite of a crippling injury list, that`s confidence at work and surrendering psychological advantages is a dangerous road to go down. Doing so hasn`t served Arsenal particularly well over the last four years in any case. In Wenger`s three title winning seasons, we have reached one F.A. Cup Semi Final and won the trophy twice, so there doesn`t seem to be much of an argument that the cup and the extra games it brings are an unwelcome distraction. When did football clubs become so ball achingly frightened of playing football games? I have absolutely no qualms with the team selection, I didn`t have any before the game and I don`t have any now. But our approach in the last fifteen minutes was over zealous in my eyes. That said, a victory would have seen us draw yet another Premiership away side, so the feeling that this was clearly not to be our year for the cup is pervasive. Given the very comfortable run we enjoyed to the semi finals last year, it`s perhaps instructive that the draws have been unkind to us this year. There is now even greater pressure on the quadruplet of matches that approach as Arsenal`s best chance of a trophy has now gone and the naysayers will be cracking their knuckles and sharpening their knives as we speak.LD.

21.FABIANSKI, 35.COQUELIN (16.Ramsey `68), 31.CAMPBELL, 18.SILVESTRE, 30.TRAORE, 37.EASTMOND, 15.DENILSON, 4.FABREGAS©, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavinb `68), 38.THOMAS (9.Eduardo `68). Unused: 7.Rosicky, 24.Mannone, 34.Bartley, 41.Frimpong.