The Calvin Report: Bayern Munich next in Arsenal's defining season
Forthcoming matches will reveal if the Gunners have enough nerve and will
Sunday 09 March 2014
Birds are building their nests, spring bulbs are beginning to emerge and Arsenal still have a chance of winning a trophy. This is either an unintended consequence of global warming or a sign that football's law of probability is finally being fulfilled.
The FA Cup, the competition which last offered Arsène Wenger tangible reward for his philosophical approach to exaggerated expectation, is suddenly and tantalisingly within reach. A Wembley place is assured and, for the moment, revisionists and doubters are silent.
Mesut Özil was reinvented as a £42million player in unaccustomed sunshine. He scored the first goal, supplied the decisive pass for the fourth and gave a masterclass of instinctive, technically adept creative play. As so often occurs in such situations, the Emirates was seized by collective amnesia.
The home fans, or consumers as they will increasingly be known in an era of £1,000 season tickets, even gave their small, friendly German an ovation for chasing back to deny Kevin Mirallas towards the end of an even, but compelling first half.
They didn't care whether his freshness stemmed from a break at a feng shui course in Frankfurt or a caravan holiday in Clacton. He was playing with the authority and application they expect from a marquee signing.
Wenger, too, was delighted. "What I liked was that physically he looked regenerated. There was more power in his runs and he did a lot of dirty work for a player like him. He tracked back. When he behaves like that we have a better chance to win games."
Not even the Premier League's artful arrangement of the fixture schedule, which could almost have been designed to minimise the impact of the old trophy, could disguise the significance of the occasion.
Wenger's admission that a trophy is "vital" was revealing for both its clarity and timing. He knows retention of a Champions' League place is no longer enough. Jose Mourinho's jibe that he is "a specialist in failure" has, not for the first time, re-set the agenda.
A season still swings on its axis. Wenger was buoyed by the quality of yesterday's performance, but only the most implacable of optimists can foresee Arsenal overcoming their first-leg deficit against Bayern Munich in Germany on Tuesday. Forthcoming Premier League matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City will reveal whether they have sufficient reserves of nerve and will.
Yet doubts sewn by familiar fallibility under fire at Stoke were eased by Arsenal's resilience in midfield, where Ross Barkley and James McCarthy offered a glimpse of Everton's potential under Roberto Martinez.
Özil was complemented perfectly by Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Since everything, for the rest of the season, will be placed into the context of the World Cup, the performances of Chamberlain and Barkley augured well for Roy Hodgson.
It may be fashionable to belittle the FA Cup, but the urgency with which both teams attacked the tie was revealing. This mattered, alright. Defeat was indigestible. The haste with which the 5,000 Everton fans melted towards the exits signalled the beginning of the end of their season.
Denied an extra 4,000 spaces, when seats were unforgivably empty, they were given hope by an equalising goal which owed everything to a superb run and delicately curled cross by Barkley, who may just find himself on the shopping list of his former manager David Moyes.
The scoreline flattered Arsenal, though Olivier Giroud, whom Wenger continues to insist is not on the naughty step, made a coherent case for being allowed to start against Bayern.
The renegotiation of the manager's contract, which expires in less than three months, threatens to run longer than The Mousetrap but tension will be eased by the prospect of two visits to Wembley.
He is not the type to require perspective, but it came anyway in the form of his erstwhile assistant Pat Rice who, in a moving half-time interview on the pitch, thanked the club and supporters for their support in his battle against cancer.
"I saw him before the match," said Wenger. "It looks like he is recovering well." Football may have its maddening moments, but it must never be mistaken for a matter of life and death.
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