Younger readers may need to Google him, but comedian and writer Ben Elton used to talk about something called the “reality gap”.
It’s the gap between your perception of something and how it actually is. This is something that, ironically, Arsène Wenger alluded to with his “everybody thinks they have the prettiest wife at home” comment many years ago.
I was reminded of this, in a few ways, watching Arsenal’s FA Cup semi final at the weekend. Obviously, we came out of it, just about, the right way up. However, it was victory that will have won the team few friends, not that they should care especially.
What struck me though, was an ongoing and particularly irritating debate with my friends on WhatsApp. One of my mates, formerly known as Gabs the Part Time Gooner but now known as Gabs the One Who Wears Funny Jackets, opined that Arsenal should be battering a very poor Reading side.
On the face of it, you would agree with that assessment. Of course you would, Arsenal are second in the Premier League and Reading are 18th in the Championship.
However, Gabs assessment didn’t take into account the fact that for the Reading players, this was the match of their careers – a chance to get to the final of the most famous club competition in world football. The Reading players worked themselves into the ground in a manner reminiscent of Spurs on February 7th. Only, unlike the Spurs players who thought they were playing in a cup final, Reading were actually trying to get to one.
Gabs also failed to take into account the fact that in a semi-final all bets are off.
You only need to look back at last year’s even more stressful encounter against Wigan to realise that anything can happen. The underdogs can be inspired by their famous surroundings, the favourites can feel the pressure and wilt under the harsh glow of expectation. It shouldn’t happen, we all know that.
A team containing the talents of Santi Cazorla, Alexis and Mesut Özil should be good enough to dismantle Reading but there’s too much to lose.
We’ve seen performances like these time and again from Arsenal down the Wenger years; remember how only the greatest save of David Seaman’s career prevented extra time against Sheffield United in 2003? We were the league champions at the time.
A year before that, we needed an own goal to see off Middlesbrough. Gala performances just do not happen for us in semi-finals, and much as you might like to sit Arsène down and ask him why this is, I think it boils down to this: the stakes are so high.
Sitting, watching the game on Saturday, my heart rate felt like it was going through the roof; what must it be like to play in such a game, when the stakes are so high?
If it sounds like I’m making excuses for Arsenal, I’m not. I’m just trying to acknowledge something which should be obvious to all. To paraphrase Mourinho (sorry), a semi-final is not for playing, it is for winning and Arsenal did that.
My mate Harry can talk about how there was no glory in our victory all he likes, but the truth is that he will have forgotten all about this game by 30th May. Particularly if it ends with Mikel Arteta lifting the famous old trophy again.
Speaking of the perception realities, we all saw how poorly Arsenal played, particularly by their own recent standards, but this notion that we were lucky on Saturday needs to be dealt with too.
Reading were unlucky with a couple of calls, particularly one on Jamie Mackie in the first half and, obviously, the winning goal was incredibly unfortunate for Adam Federici. However, it would have been an injustice had Arsenal not won through to the final.
Both Mertesacker and Gabriel were very unlucky not to score, whilst Giroud and Ramsey both hit the woodwork. And then there was what felt like a constant stream of Reading fouls – twenty awarded in the match but only one booking. Not to mention the slightly fortuitous nature of the Reading equaliser.
I wonder, if the Reading players had been properly controlled, would they have been able to restrict Arsenal so effectively? I kind of doubt it.
In the end, we can be grateful that Pogbrenyak messed up the two-on-one chance at the end and that we have a player like Alexis. I have been slightly critical of him lately and I don’t think he had one of his better games on Saturday. However, when the chips were down it was him who produced the goods.
I’m sure we’ll be looking forward to a repeat on 30th May.
Still, at least Steven Gerrard can concentrate on getting out on the lash and properly enjoying his birthday now.
Every cloud and all that…