I don’t know what Arsène wanted for his birthday, there is in any case little about this most cerebral of football managers to suggest he is particularly motivated by material possessions. I’ll bet he didn’t have a nil nil draw with Middlesbrough particularly high on the list though.
Fortunately we weren’t the only club with a little bit European hangover at the weekend and the players have the opportunity to present their boss with a belated gift much more to his liking. Reading are the visitors tonight and they will be looking for their first victory against Arsenal, a victory which would surely rank among the great cup surprises were they to pull it off. We’ve played ten won ten against the boys from Berkshire and scored thirty five goals along the way – seven of those coming when last we met them in this very competition.
Whilst that crazy game has been on people’s minds of late I’ve been enjoying memories of Alexis Sanchez’s winner in the FA Cup semi final. I don’t know what it is about the football fan’s plumbless appetite for schadenfreude but there is a particular pleasure to be derived from winning with precisely the species of goal by which we would most hate to lose.
Hopefully Reading won’t still be chafing about Gabriel’s handball – overlooked by the ref with the scores at one all, nor that Alexis pass back to Adam Federici which somehow ended in the back of the keeper’s net. It’s possible they may be motivated by such historical considerations but somehow I doubt it. Like Arsenal they will draw inspiration from looking at the fourth round fixtures, thinking to themselves that a few decent sides will be absent from the last eight.
The matches have fallen in such a way to guarantee that three from Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, Man City, Man United and West Ham will be going out of the competition this week, leaving a potentially enticing quarter final for this evening’s winner. Of course I hope it will be Arsenal. In fact, you’re probably wondering why I feel the need to say that at all.
There are, you see, some among us who would be quite content to leave the League Cup to other people. Too many fixtures they cry, too many other competitions needful of our attention to worry about the Mickey Mouse tournament. Odd that it is Mickey who has become synonymous with things deemed unimportant and trifling. Why I wonder of all Disney’s creations should the most venerable of his animated stars be so derided by association? From now on I think you should refer to the League Cup as a Chicken Little of a tournament, but even if you do I still love it.
There is far less pressure surrounding the games so that awful dread of defeat doesn’t eat the stomach lining in the same corrosive fashion as it does during league or FA Cup ties. There are sneak previews of great young players like Jazzy-Jeff Reine-Adelaide to look forward to. There are first team fringe players like Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel, Noddy Holding and Corporal Jenks all of whom I really like and want to watch. And, gosh darn it, when all is said and done there is a trip to Wembley and a trophy at the end of it no matter how much of a Jiminy Cricket Cup you might consider it to be.
Arsène has rather taken the wind out the sails of us football blog artists by revealing much of his team in advance. The name which most excited me was of course Olivier Giroud. Our Gallic heartthrob has been sorely missed lately. Never more so than when we needed a different kind of threat against ‘boro at the weekend. His defensive work from corners and his aerial threat from crosses are always a massive plus but love him as I do the manager was cagey over what part he will play, merely saying “I think Olivier will be included”.
He went on in much less equivocal style where others were concerned saying “Gabriel, Holding, Jenkinson will play. Jeff Reine-Adelaide will play, I think Iwobi, Lucas, Oxlade-Chamberlain will also play. Gibbs – who captained the team at Forest – will do it again on Tuesday.” Factor in that Martinez will certainly start in goal and that’s nine of the eleven starters already down. I’ll leave the other two places for you to argue over, I’m content to wait. I’ll be happy if Olivier comes through unscathed. With him and Aaron coming back into contention the squad begins to look very strong indeed.
Our visitors’ form is a mish-mash right now.They win a couple, lose one, draw a couple, lose one and win one, which is a stark contrast to our long unbeaten run. Their manager Jaap Stam (yes that Jaap Stam – come on do you know any other Jaap Stams?) has made all the right noises, those you’d expect him to make and their squad is not without premier league experience. Captain Paul McShane has played for three top flight clubs and has thirty three caps for the Republic of Ireland, Chris Gunter will be familiar to all who followed Aaron and his mates as they frolicked through to the semi finals of the European Championships, and Tyler Blackett and Stephen Quinn are similarly experienced at a higher level.
Our side will, necessarily, be less familiar with one another and therein lies Reading’s best hope of progressing to the next round. As we discovered in Sheffield this time last year a blend of youth and experience, no matter how strong in theory, can come unstuck against determined, united opposition. The difference this year is, I believe, the strength of our squad. The guys pulling on the shirt tonight have a real incentive to impress their manager especially as the first team are doing so well.
That Wednesday match was significant chiefly for the injuries we suffered to both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott rather than the disappointment of the result. Losing two such similar players at such a stage in the season had a huge impact and it is only recently that either player has returned to full form and fitness. So let’s hope for a relaxing, enjoyable evening, above all no injuries please, and if we can maintain our one hundred percent record against The Royals then I shall go to bed a happy man tonight.