Arsenal seek Cup of solace

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Not since the amateur era more than 120 years ago, when clubs such as the Old Etonians, Wanderers and Clapham Rovers were lifting the original "little tin idol", have successive FA Cup finals been played between southern-based teams. At this afternoon's match in Cardiff there will, however, be no rash claim of a southward shift in the game's balance of power.

Southampton know their place, which is as a respected member of the Premiership but a rare diner at the high table when the prizes are given out. Arsenal, having forecast such a sea change when completing the Double last May, are painfully aware that the north's leading representative has this season reasserted itself.

The talk this week from a chastened Highbury has been of the need to acquire physical reward for their majestic football and so avoid the season being regarded as a failed one. The mood has been introspective as the players try to understand how the title drifted away and the European campaign collapsed. Robert Pires, who will be seeking his first FA Cup winners' medal, having missed last year's victory over Chelsea with injury, completed his personal inquest by identifying a lack of mental discipline.

He said: "We have very good players. Our problem is concentration. The points we dropped at places like Newcastle, Liverpool, Bolton and Villa were the ones which cost us. There are no excuses. Manchester United were too strong for us."

Pires, who said he intended to sit down with Arsène Wenger to discuss a new contract in the next fortnight, before returning to France for the Confederations Cup, added: "It is very important to win the FA Cup because if we don't it will be a bad season. A club like Arsenal has to win something every season."

This is Arsenal's spur, their counterweight to the temptations of over-confidence, a real threat given their recent 6-1 demolition of Southampton but too often the cause of their poor concentration. In the four Premiership matches Pires referred to, plus the decisive Champions' League fixture in Valencia, Arsenal let slip a winning position.

This offers an avenue of encouragement to Southampton, proof that their prospects do not exclusively depend in scoring first and holding on. Further hope comes in Arsenal's selection problems. Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell, absent through injury and suspension respectively, were seriously missed in the Premiership run-in. Joining them in civvies behind the dug-out today are Francis Jeffers, the Cup-tied Jermaine Pennant and Pascal Cygan. Crucially, given Campbell and Cygan's absence, Martin Keown, Oleg Luzhny and Lauren are also carrying injuries. Kolo Touré and Igor Stepanovs are on standby and at least one can expect to finish, and maybe start.

Southampton have a more settled defence, one of the best in the Premiership (it was a shadow side which lost 6-1, to an admittedly even less familiar Arsenal XI). In Fabrice Fernandes they have imaginative width and in James Beattie a centre-forward who makes things happen – in the last two rounds he prompted own goals by his presence. The consistent Chris Marsden hopes to overcome a knee injury to play while the goalkeeper Antii Niemi, whose safe handling has made such a difference, has recovered from a jarred knee.

Saints left for Cardiff on Thursday, a day earlier than usual just, said Strachan, to "get away from all the excitement and to focus on the game". They left behind a queue for the club shop which began at 5am and developed into a four-hour wait as supporters sought a forgettable memento which will doubtless soon join the 1976 equivalents, mouldering in the loft. More queues are anticipated at city pubs from 9am today, with 'Beattie Burgers' on one menu.

It is behaviour like this which is the reason most neutrals, for all the beauty of Arsenal's football, will be cheering on Southampton. When Bobby Stokes won them the FA Cup in 1976 it was still the match which stopped the nation. There are several factors behind the competition's subsequent decline, including the rise of the Premiership and Champions' League, poor stewardship by the FA and, especially, the proliferation of televised games. An additional factor is the dominance of the big-city clubs. Only once in the last quarter-century, in Coventry 16 years ago, has the open-top bus victory parade been conducted outside London, Liverpool or Manchester. The rarity of Southampton's presence should be underlined by the knowledge that Matt Le Tissier, their finest player, never reached a Cup final in more than a decade at the club.

If the FA Cup is to tour Southampton's city centre tomorrow, Saints will have to halt Thierry Henry and beat David Seaman, who is likely to be playing his last match as Arsenal's senior goalkeeper. Strachan admitted this week that, while he is "conscious of the importance of not spoiling the match as a spectacle with a tactical approach liable to bore the pants of everybody, we want to give ourselves the best chance of winning".

To that end the crucial decision could concern Southampton's right flank, where Strachan is bound to have reservations about letting Pires and Ashley Cole attack Fernandes and Paul Telfer, especially as Henry often drifts out to the Arsenal left. Marsden, or his replacement, could be asked to switch wings with Fernandes. Alternatively Brett Ormerod may be asked to play wider to occupy Cole.

"You cannot win it playing the same way as Arsenal," Strachan said. "If you attempt to try and play them at their game, they will beat you because they have got better players. We are not as good as them technically but we can compete with Arsenal."

Indeed, Southampton are one of the few clubs who are capable of beating Arsenal and did so, 3-2 at St Mary's with Campbell and Vieira in opposition, earlier this season.

The odds remain stacked against them, but no more than they were 27 years ago. That match was dramatic rather than entertaining, Southampton might settle for the same today.