Suddenly, Wenger has to take Cup seriously

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The Independent Football

If any more roosting chickens had settled on the shoulder of Arsène Wenger here last night the suspicion might have been that he was involved in a re-make of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds rather than the replay of a fifth-round FA Cup tie that had gone horribly wrong. It made certain a night of unremitting tension, and perhaps, who knows, just a little bit of self-examination.

If any more roosting chickens had settled on the shoulder of Arsène Wenger here last night the suspicion might have been that he was involved in a re-make of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds rather than the replay of a fifth-round FA Cup tie that had gone horribly wrong. It made certain a night of unremitting tension, and perhaps, who knows, just a little bit of self-examination.

Perhaps the bird of reproach that landed most heavily was the one carrying his old statement that it was far more important to finish fourth in the Premiership than win the old tournament once illuminated supremely by Sir Stanley Matthews.

Remember that imperious putdown by the master of Highbury? It was aimed at Chelsea, who had slipped beyond the shadow of their London rivals and Manchester United to beat Aston Villa in the last final before the rebuilding of Wembley became a national challenge of such bewildering complexity. It was a terrible final but then Wenger made a terrible point. It was that finishing among the European TV largesse now meant more to everyone in the game than actually winning something, all on your own.

Amazing what five years can do - and one brief burst of disciplinary breakdown and motivational failure.

Last night you would never have dreamed that Wenger was once so dismissive of the world's most romantic football competition, and just a few weeks ago sent out a patchwork team to see off the Championship upstarts Sheffield United when they came to town.

Here he threw in all his best troops, but of course there were not too many of them left after the ravages of suspension and injury. Astonishingly, Wenger was obliged to play the potentially brilliant but scarcely tested young Italian Arturo Lupoli alongside converted midfielder Freddy Ljungberg because of suspensions to Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Robin van Persie, which had come on top of injuries to Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.

Talk about the wages of sin or arrogance or perhaps that flood tide of hubris which came with suggestions, some from old football men who should have known better, that Arsenal were maybe the best club team ever seen in English football. That hard verdict, to be fair, was provoked by some exquisite football in their long unbeaten Premiership run, but where was that towering long-term assault on the biggest prize in Europe which picked out Liverpool as the highest achievers of all?

Last week it crumbled again, this time in Munich's Olympic Stadium, and the result of that crushing disappointment, plus Saturday's loss of two points at Southampton which almost certainly cost them their Premiership title, was plain enough in the steel city brought to a fine edge by the chance of a quarter-final place in the old Cup Wenger once rejected so coldly. It was Wenger, his face wrapped in tension from the opening minutes, prowling the technical area with an intensity that had recently been claimed all for himself by his fierce rival Jose Mourinho.

It was a gruelling experience for the man who so recently seemed to have been playing all of English football as it though it was just a row of puppets, and the first point of serious tension came with devastating speed - in just 40 seconds.

That was the time it took for Andy Gray to waltz down the Arsenal left, where Wenger had been forced to play Ashley Cole in midfield and the gifted teenager Gaël Clichy at left-back, and place a perfect pass in the path of Michael Tonge.

Tonge, contrived to fire over the bar from almost precisely under it, but any hope of Wenger's that his team had been brought to a fine point of concentration was soon enough disappointed. Sheffield, under the insistent urging of coach Neil Warnock, refused to surrender the psychological shock value of that opening statement and it wasn't until the middle of the second half that Arsenal began to provide any serious evidence that even while wrecked by injury and suspension they could produce more than an occasional flash of quality.

Not for the first time this season this was produced most impressively by Cesc Fabregas. The young Spaniard was one of Arsenal's least popular visitors after his shocking tackle on Nick Montgomery at Highbury, but the incessant booing did little to staunch his creative impulses.

Patrick Vieira was supposed to shape the game but it was Fabregas who suggested the most serious Arsenal ambition when he stroked the ball beautifully against the Sheffield crossbar from 20 years.

The young Arsenal hope also provoked one of the more spectacular pieces of defensive action when Derek Geary, apparently nervelessly, scooped Fabregas's shot just over the bar. Such aggression was supposed to subdue the Sheffield spirit, but, as it was at Highbury, they were a team disinclined to lay back and accept the change of priorities laid down by Wenger.

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