Arsenal faced Aston Villa yesterday in the fourth round of the FA Cup with a trip to either Sunderland or Middlesbrough as the prize for the victor. With Arsenal's chances of winning a trophy this season realistically resting with the FA Cup it was a must win game for them.
With a few of the injured players returning to the squad Arsenal looked like they might be getting some of their strength back. Only Francis Coquelin started the game on his return to the squad, but it was good to see Bacary Sagna, Mikael Arteta and Thierry Henry on the bench.
Coquelin played at right back, and the only other change from last week's defeat to Manchester United was the inclusion of Lukasz Fabianski in goal. Arsene Wenger usually uses his second choice keeper for the domestic cup competitions, and Fabianski needed some game time. It wasn't the strongest team Arsenal have, but it looked good enough to beat Villa.
The game started brightly for Arsenal, but they lost their way after the opening 15 minutes. As Villa grew in confidence their first goal came when Arsenal fell asleep for a Villa corner. It was worked short and Coquelin was left with two players on him outside the box.
Robbie Keane crossed into the box and Richard Dunne rose above the Arsenal defence to put Villa 1-0 up. I thought Dunne climbed on Laurent Koscielny, but the goal was given, and Villa were in the driving seat. Arsenal tried to raise their game and started to push forward, but disaster struck in the last minute of the first half.
Arsenal had a corner but Villa cleared it and broke quickly at the Arsenal defence. Darren Bent was played in on the right of the Villa attack, but his shot was very well saved by Fabianski. He probably should have pushed the ball out for a corner, but he only managed to push it back to Bent who finished very well from a tight angle.
At half time boos echoed around the Emirates, as the Arsenal players made their way to the dressing room. Wenger had 15 minutes to get his players to realise the importance of the game, and the gravity of the position they were in. Whatever he said seemed to work, as Arsenal came out a completely different team in the second half.
They went at Villa with pace and purpose, and the first goal came courtesy of a Robin van Persie penalty after 54 minutes. Richard Dunne had already been booked in the first half and when he took Aaron Ramsey down in the penalty area the referee gave a penalty to Arsenal, but amazingly he didn't give Dunne a second yellow card. RVP stepped up and finished the penalty in some style to get Arsenal back in the game.
Only two minutes later Arsenal were level when Theo Walcott made a great run into the Villa penalty area, and tried a shot from a very tight angle. Alan Hutton tried to clear the ball off the line, but it rebounded off Walcott and went into the net. The ball may have hit Walcott in the arm but it was by no means intentional and the goal stood.
Villa were visibly wilting and Arsenal continued to push forward at every opportunity. They went ahead after 61 minutes when a great run forward by Laurent Koscielny ended in Darren Bent taking him down in the penalty area. RVP stepped up to take the penalty again, and this time he scored in the other side of the net.
In just under eight minutes Arsenal had turned a two goal deficit into a one goal advantage, and taken complete control of the game. Villa were shell shocked and Arsenal came close to adding to their lead. Whatever had happened in the Arsenal half time team talk had obviously worked very well.
Arteta came on for Rosicky with 20 minutes left, and in the last few minutes Sagna and Henry came on too. It was great to see both Arteta and Sagna in the team again, and I hope to see them both start against Bolton on Wednesday night in the Premier League. It's another must win game for Arsenal, but at this stage of the season they all seem to be must win games.
As the game wore on Arsenal eased off their intensity a little and Villa came back into the game, as they looked to gain a replay. There were one or two slightly scary moments for Arsenal, but they saw things out to win their place in the last 16. They will face a trip to the winners of the Middlesbrough and Sunderland game in three weeks time.
RVP was given the man of the match award, but a few other players put in good performances in that second half particularly. After another poor display in the first half from both Walcott and Aaron Ramsey things improved greatly for both players in the second half. Walcott was a little lucky with his goal but hopefully it will be the spur he needs to start scoring more often.
Ramsey seemed to play further forward in the second half, and he was much improved in that role. Tomas Rosicky played well throughout the game, and of course Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was impressive yet again.
In defence Arsenal looked very nervous at times as usual, but the Arsenal defenders all played their part in the second half comeback. They all tried their best to get forward when they could, and that helped to put Villa under a lot of pressure. It was noticeable how little time Villa had in possession during that fabulous spell in the second half, and when they were under pressure they made mistakes.
Arsenal need to keep playing at that tempo and putting teams under pressure if they are going to progress in both the league and the cup. Fourth place is still there for the taking if they can perform like they did in that second half against Villa. There is no more place for the slow moving thoughtful displays of the first half where the tempo is missing from their game.
The returning injured players will help to bring that tempo to the Arsenal team, and I expect to see Sagna and Arteta play against Bolton on Wednesday night. They will probably replace Coquelin and Rosicky who both played well, but they will have to make way for two better players. A little bit of strength on the bench won't go astray either, and a few options for Wenger when a game requires them will be welcome.
A win over Villa in the cup isn't the most thrilling result, but the manner of the comeback shows there is still some hope for the team. The fight and desire shown by them was what is required for the rest of the season, and the fans now know that it exists. Six points in four days against Bolton and Blackburn are now required, and if they are gained things will be looking a lot better for Arsenal.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
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