WHILE the nation grows increasingly attached to the unfamiliar spectacle of Arsene Wenger's expansive and inventive Arsenal, the Gunners' distaff side have been playing that way for years.
Arsenal Ladies' manager, Vik Akers, may risk comparison with the sterner style of the George Graham era when he says his team's success is founded on a solid defence - but he also says: "The women's game isn't about smashing the ball all around the park. We like to get it down, and we like to play."
That approach has won them three league titles and two FA Cups in the past five years, and Highbury's first silverware this season when they won the women's League Cup on penalties against their close rivals Croydon. That rivalry is renewed tomorrow afternoon, live on Sky at 3pm when the clubs meet at Millwall in the Women's FA Cup final.
Akers expects another nail-biter. Arsenal and Croydon have been inseparable in open play this term; the previous final finished 0-0 after extra time, while their league meetings finished 2-2 and 3-3. The latter result, last Thursday night at Potters Bar, extinguished Arsenal's faint mathematical hopes of the league championship; Everton Ladies collect that honour, in contrast to the plight of Goodison's men. But with the women's game in its usual end-of-season chaos, Akers had anyway abandoned hope that his team could stage a late league charge to match Wenger's men.
Playing Croydon again tomorrow, Arsenal then have the London County Cup final on Wednesday, and their last league games - against Bradford and Doncaster - on Friday and Sunday. It is, said Akers, "Absolutely crazy. How can you expect amateurs to do that? All you're doing is giving them an opportunity to get injured. When there's only 18 league games, you'd think it could be better organised."
Croydon's run-in isn't much better; in other regards, however, the FA's commitment to the women's game looks much stronger these days. Improving publicity drew 2,500 to last season's final at Upton Park, where Millwall beat Wembley 1-0; more recently, over 5,000 watched England's tight 1- 0 loss to Germany in a World Cup qualifier.
Both tomorrow's finalists have been well represented in recent England squads; indeed, all bar one of Arsenal's likely starters have senior caps. One to watch is Faye White, a tall centre-half likened for her presence and composure to the iconic Tony Adams; 20 years old, White is a fitness instructor who opened her international account against Italy last month with (what else?) a header from a corner.
Whether Arsenal can find a way past Hope Powell's equally capable Croydon remains to be seen but, whatever the outcome, Highbury is buzzing and Akers said his women feel fully part of that. "We'll be guests when the men play at Wembley, and that's lovely."
After all, an FA Cup final is special for players of either gender - and Arsenal this season have a chance to win both of them.
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