Arsenal need a show not the showboating

Wenger does not regard the Cardiff final as a consolation prize. It is a big prize. Steve Tongue on what is needed for a season to be saved
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The Independent Online

Rare is the 6-1 victory that casts a slightest shadow of doubt in the winners' minds. That was the feeling, however, experienced by the more perceptive Arsenal followers – and players? – after the bizarre goings-on at Highbury last Wednesday, when a half-strength Southampton submitted to an even more diluted home team in a sort of dress rehearsal with understudies for Saturday's show in Cardiff.

Rare is the 6-1 victory that casts a slightest shadow of doubt in the winners' minds. That was the feeling, however, experienced by the more perceptive Arsenal followers – and players? – after the bizarre goings-on at Highbury last Wednesday, when a half-strength Southampton submitted to an even more diluted home team in a sort of dress rehearsal with understudies for Saturday's show in Cardiff.

Concern not usually associated with a five-goal success was caused by the entry, for the final act, of James Beattie, a strolling player in search of a golden boot. With 23 goals to his name already, he might have added three more in 15 minutes, terrorising defenders whom Arsenal supporters must hope will not be required anywhere near centre-stage next weekend.

It could be argued, of course, that with the cast so depleted, nothing that happened on Wednesday was ever going to be relevant to what transpires once the curtain goes up in six days' time. At best, Arsenal were hoping to prove they possessed sufficient resilience to overcome the psychological damage incurred in losing their championship last Sunday; five goals in the first 26 minutes ought to have done that. But might the ease with which Thierry Henry and Robert Pires opened up Southampton's rearguard induce a combination of complacency and arrogance that Manchester United claimed to have detected in London N5 throughout the season? Henry's subsequent showboating could easily have led to a calamitous kick from one of his frustrated victims. For long periods of the second half, when not playing keepy-uppy, he simply walked around, and at the end of a 6-1 win slumped to the floor as if still demoralised by the title that got away.

It was a strange night all round, compounded when Gordon Strachan claimed to have become convinced 10 minutes from the finish that his team would emulate the heroes of 1976 by winning the FA Cup against the odds and superior opposition. The manner in which they were at last getting some tackles in, closing down highly skilled ball-players and then slinging in crosses for Beattie had at least offered some hope. Those were the tactics used so successfully in an altogether more pertinent game between the sides at St Mary's in November, when Arsenal were beaten 3-2 by two free-kicks and a penalty after Sol Campbell had been controversially sent off. There was also a heroic performance – of the sort that wins Cup finals – from Southampton's goalkeeper Antti Niemi, badly missed at Highbury but expected to be fit.

Suspect defending, notably from Pascal Cygan, played its part that day, as it has done in the concession of the Premiership title and the chance of a historic double Double; in three other crucial games, against Bolton, Manchester United and Leeds, Arsenal have scored twice, yet failed to win. Now, with Campbell suspended, they may have to press Martin Keown into service while less than 100 per cent fit, and are in the unexpected position of having to hope that Cygan recovers from a calf strain.

Injuries to Fredrik Ljungberg, Edu and Lauren all make the line-up difficult to forecast at this stage. What is known is that there will be no Patrick Vieira, a loss to the spine of the team even greater than Campbell's; Arsène Wenger could do with Ljungberg fit, so that Ray Parlour can bring some British beef to the central area, where Gilberto Silva is sometimes too easily subdued for a World Cup winner. Whether, in the Swede's absence, Wednesday night's hat-trickster Jermaine Pennant – gifted but erratic – might be trusted to start as big a game as this, is one of many posers for Wenger. He will certainly need his wide midfielders to help the full-backs prevent Fabrice Fernandes and the underrated Chris Marsden (if fit) from supplying Beattie.

It would be hard on Arsenal to finish empty-handed after a season in which the standard of their football was often so outstanding. Wenger believes that is a powerful incentive, together with the squad's understanding in their third successive final of what the FA Cup means: "It is something different from the championship and it will mean a big trophy if we win it. We played Man United and Chelsea and fought hard to get there, so it's not right to go out now and say it's a consolation prize. It is a big prize, even if it is not the biggest. I don't want to put myself in the position where we don't win anything. What I can say is that the final part of the season has not gone for us and we want to put it right in the final game."

But it will take character, as well as the sort of ability from the midfield and front players that produced devastating performances in games against PSV Eindhoven (4-0), Leeds (4-1), Roma (3-1) and Manchester City (5-1) – all those games, interestingly, away from home.

Most neutrals will favour the underdog, as is the English way, and will feel that the final is due another proper upset. Since the late Bobby Stokes earned immortality in Hampshire 27 years ago, only Ipswich (1978), West Ham (1980), Coventry (1987), Wimbledon (1988) and Everton (1995) have significantly upset the odds. Southampton, although given an easy ride to the final, have already broken the mould of recent dominance by the more fashionable clubs and can come close to smashing it. Watch Henry's body language for some early clues.

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