Are some Arsenal fans too quick to celebrate facing Aston Villa instead of Liverpool in the FA Cup final?
When I first saw the Liverpool v Aston Villa semi-final score I was in bed nursing something that was halfway between a hangover and a cold.
I opened up the Sky Sports app on my phone, expecting to see a narrow victory by Liverpool. When I saw the match had ended 2-1 to Aston Villa, my reaction was probably the same of most Arsenal fans. One of relief. One of ‘well this will be easier’.
Against all the odds, a team fighting off relegation had made the final and chances are, we’ll win.
However, after these initial few seconds, the positivity drained from me and that usual gnawing feeling in my stomach returned – an issue I’ve grown used to being an Arsenal fan.
Should we be so confident against Villa? Or is this sense of confidence in our team just arrogance, especially when it comes to a cup final?
Squeaky bum time
Let’s rewind a little to Saturday evening.
We played a resilient, well organised Reading team who gave everything they had to chase us down and block us from getting near their goal. No doubt the team and manager had replayed video-after-video of our recent wins, devising a strategy to keep us out and snuff out any attacks.
They knew who to place on each man and how to slow him down.
However, we found our way through, albeit via a mistake from their goalkeeper, who’d been brilliant for them until that point.
In hindsight, the ‘luck’ which I spoke of in my slightly inebriated player ratings post-match was more a kneejerk reaction to our narrow escape. A little bit angry at the fact that I felt as if I’d just returned from war when I voluntarily do this to myself.
In reality, as Paul spoke about in his piece, our second goal was more about us just probing away at their goal, putting pressure on them until they made a mistake.
Saying this, it did take a lot probing. Probing which my heart (and liver) probably could’ve done without.
What concerned me was that, although we did get the win, it showed, not necessarily how shaky we are – as I believe the struggle was more likely down to Reading throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us and not our flatness, although the latter probably contributed – but how unpredictable semi-finals and cup finals can be. As Paul mentioned, when it comes to these fixtures, all bets are off.
Liverpool losing to Villa proves that.
Rewinding even further to our semi-final against Wigan last season. It was worryingly similar.
Although we were the team to equalise and went through on penalties, the moral is still the same. The underdog – the team with nothing to lose and everything to gain – played fearlessly and gave everything. We were, again, a little flat and, on any other day we would’ve played them off the pitch, but that day – the one that counted – we couldn’t.
Our FA Cup final match again comes against a team that are fighting relegation.
Hull City sat just one place lower in the league table at this point last season than Villa currently do. In Premier League fixtures, we’ve beaten Villa comprehensively this season with a 3-0 victory away and 5-0 at the Emirates.
We’d also beaten Hull in both previous fixtures last seasons with convincing scorelines (2-0 and 3-0).
However, in the final, Hull put us under huge pressure and got two early goals which, thankfully, we managed to bounce back from.
I have no doubt that Villa will do the same come 30th May.
With that in mind, is facing Villa in the final actually better for us – or easier – than facing Liverpool?
I don’t think so.
With Liverpool, despite a comfortable win against them recently in the league, we’re far less likely to underestimate a team with which we’ve had an historic rivalry.
An FA Cup final between Arsenal and Liverpool would’ve been a fantastic fixture for the neutral and fans alike.
We would’ve – hopefully – given everything from start to finish, knowing we have to be switched on 100% of the time to win.
With Villa, I fear we’ll approach it similarly to last season, nonchalant and pensive, allowing them to grab early goals which, this time, we may not come back from.
Saying this, it sounds as if I’m not giving the team and manager enough credit.
Of course, they should learn from their mistakes and of course, especially after a close match in the semi-final, I don’t think we’ll underestimate Aston Villa. However, what happens on the day is a different story.
We have the quality to beat them but sometimes, as I’ve spoken about before, quality on paper isn’t enough. Form, league position and previous matches all go out the window when it comes to a final.
This is when it comes down to that mysterious mental strength, which Arsene Wenger so often refers to but no one really, truly understands until it matters.
How do you conjure the mental strength to beat a team fighting to stay above the relegation zone, whose only chance of lifting a trophy in years is to win this match? Whose new manager is trying to prove he’s the right man for the job? A team which wants to win so desperately that they’ll literally throw anything at us just to get it?
We just have to want it more.
It really is that simple.