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It was only a few days ago that I was thinking how Rosicky’s Arsenal career was fizzling out and destined for a disappointing end. Barely featuring, last year of contract – it seemed likely that the cup final would come and go and it would be a case of ta-da Tom.

Some players leave and I don’t much care. Other leave who I’d rather hadn’t. But Tom Rosicky, the Little Mozart? The little man is a stick of dynamite. He’s fantastic.

He’s never been the pivot round which the team was built. Maybe that’s because he had the kind of layoff between January 2008 and September 2009 that would make Diaby blush. But when called on, he’s invariably been excellent, with close technical skills that stand up to the best of them, surprising pace even at 34, and an energy that lifts the team whenever he comes on.

He’s not shy of scoring either. And belters at that – he’s good at long-rangers, good at placing goals with Exocet-like precision, and good at running with the ball from distance. Best of all, he has a knack of scoring top goals against our chums up the road. Twice in consecutive 5-2 routs, and then that curving, unstoppable rasper in the 1-0 away win (the goal that may well end up being the one people remember the most).

Forgotten how good he is? Of course you haven’t, but here are some gentle reminders anyway.

Does he have weaknesses? Not many, if you ask me, other than advancing years. Games rarely pass him by entirely. He plays with a smile on his face. He’s no agitator. He has excellent hair.

Eight starts and 16 sub appearances is not bad for a 34-year-old – he could not play a whole season even if we wanted him to – so perhaps it was no surprise after all that Wenger has exercised the right to extend his contract by one final year.

The cynical view would be that it’s a way of getting some money for him while offering the player some security in the meantime. But no, I genuinely think it’s the right call for both parties. He’s still a lovely little player. An impact sub of the highest order. So I hope he is here for one last, testimonial-season hurrah.

Gilberto played the mandolin and he was brilliant. Rosicky plays guitar. In the close season Wilshere is a wandering minstrel who plays the Dulcimer.*

*One of these facts is untrue.

I raise my plectrum to unsung midfielders with string-instrument skills.

Super Tom Rosicky. No word of a lie.

When we lost to Swansea ten days ago I detected a whiff of endofseasonitis. We’d already qualified for the Champions League and the title was long gone – dusted, boxed up and packed away. We lost and we weren’t great.

All it takes is for a few percent of the usual performance to evaporate for what we’ve seen over the last three games to occur. Not horrendous, but not very good either. Too predictable and a bit slow of body and mind.

I know that the difference between third and fourth is not to be dismissed, nor is the notion of finishing one place higher than last season something to look down at, but once that Champions League qualification had been reached, maybe a little bit switched off.

Feels that way. I suppose it’s a bit like being a marathon runner. Those last few miles are the hardest. (I don’t know this of course, as I’ve never run one. I have eaten one, but that’s as near as I’ve got).

It explains why teams that are imperious until the point of winning something often end up losing straight afterwards (and it makes Arsenal’s 2004 achievement – to not lose having won the title with four games to spare – all the more admirable).

So all of this, despite my frustration last night, I understand. I just hope that this dip in form – goals are suddenly nightmarishly hard to come by – can be shaken off for the cup final.

I’d like to think our recent appearances there have inured us to such whimsical Wembley form. But ‘Wigan’, ‘Hull’ and ‘Reading’ are three words that will point to another truth: that playing a cup semi-final and final is not remotely predictable. Arsenal don’t do it that way.

All fingers point to it being anyone’s game. But at the very least, we need to find a way of rediscovering some mojo and some of the technical silk that we have seen since the New Year. We look leggy and a bit dulled.

Wenger’s worried we could be fatigued for the final. It’s easy to see why. I get why he’s played the same players, but there’s little to gain from doing that on Sunday. Giroud is dead beat. Alexis is running on empty. Ozil is making weary errors and even the metronomic Cazorla is misplacing passes.

Big changes on Sunday – I’d be amazed if there was anything else. It’s not like the preferred eleven is currently nailing it.

Hull City 1-3 Arsenal

There I was with my worry beads, thinking this could have been been a mouldy old banana skin, and here I am now looking a little bit stupid.

Turns out the concentration was fine after all, and if anything, somewhat heightened. So much so that it was one of the more complete performances of the season. I won’t try to compare it with any other matches, mostly because I can’t really remember very far back in any great detail, but have you seen a better display of passing than that? No Sir, I have jolly well not.

Orchestrating it all were three fleet-footed amigos in the shape of Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla, the latter two in particular competing for the most outrageous defence splitter. Dead heat on that front if you ask me.

Both Ramsey and Cazorla were phenomenal, once again sinking my pre-match fears about a lack of width below the waterline. Pah, what do I know. It’s not like you come here for informed tactical and motivational insight. (It’s not like they come here at all – Ed).

Cazorla was magic again, and I’d hoik his future right up the agenda. There has been hearsay for a while about him leaving this summer (though I’m not sure where the rumours have come from) but right now he’s a stick of fizzing dynamite and we should pull out all the stops to keep him. Who else would have him in Europe? Who wouldn’t.

Jack Wilshere deserves a mention too for an excellent cameo. His direct running literally threw a real cat amongst the actual pigeons. Up for the challenge? We see you Jack, we see you.

Sanchez was brilliant, point-blank refusing to play at anything less than 100%, far better on the night than a strangely lacklustre Giroud. I thought at one point a month or so ago that Giroud would overtake Sanchez in the goalscoring charts, but I can’t see it now. In the league – perhaps. But not overall and 24 goals is an excellent return.

So, great defending and dynamic attacking – with the added bonus being the chiming of the bells of St Totteringham. What’s not to like.

The battle to finish second – or at least in the automatic Champions League slots – has twisted and turned but with some strange fizzling-outs elsewhere in recent weeks, it’s opened up for Arsenal.

United, who were winning without convincing, have slumped at a peculiar time. Liverpool, ditto, though they won’t have given up hope yet. Man City have won three in a row but have had a strange season.

So we stand on the threshold of Champions League football again. Win tonight against Hull and we’re there, barring a four-game collapse of monumental proportions and a swing in goal difference of more than 20 goals.

It’s a good position to be in, but I can’t help but feel it could be a more unpredictable end to the season than we think, too. It’s the time of year when concentration can drop and bodies are weary (as we are seeing elsewhere). If the ‘goal’ has long been Champions League football (stop squirming at the back) and we make it with four games to go, that little edge might be taken off proceedings. That’s something Wenger will be keen to warn against.

Fortunately, we have three home games to come. Does it matter if we come second, third or fourth? Obviously, not having to qualify for the Champions League would be huge. But beyond that – not much. Runners-up means you haven’t been good enough to come first. Though if you look at it chronologically, it’s progress – we’ve not been second since 2005.

In fact, the two most unpredictable opponents could be Hull tonight and Sunderland at home. The prospect of relegation can do strange things to people; just ask Leicester.

If I was in charge, I’d inject a bit more width tonight. Ramsey is a bit wasted out on the right and I’d be inclined to go bold. For me that means starting with Welbeck on the wing, not Ramsey. He can either play through the middle, giving Santi a rest, or can come on later in the game if we need more midfield discipline.

Of course, fitting everyone in is hard when they’re all so atypically fit. Wilshere is champing at the bit and he won’t be the only one. It does make for an intriguing summer, because while I agree with Wenger that the close season won’t see huge ins and outs, there will be some frustration and agitation to contend with. Walcott, Wilshere, Gibbs, Debuchy, Szczesny, Arteta: all will wonder about their places. That’s not even taking the imminent departures of Rosicky and Flamini into account.

In other news…

Much as I say it through gritted teeth, because there’s a list of things I dislike about them as long as my arm, Chelsea have deserved to win the league and I don’t want to be incredibly graceless about it by pretending it hasn’t happened. All fans are partisan and blinkered, and I am no different, but they’ve won the league by a canter, so fair play to them.

The whole ‘boring’ thing was just an epic wind-up and should be seen as such. For me, the thing to concentrate on is not whether you like their style of play or not (I think they’ve played decent football overall – our own performances hardly tore trees up in the first half of the season) and more about what we need to do to catch them next year.

Points-wise, everyone else is miles off.

So if closing the gap means being more cynical and streetwise at times, and throwing aesthetics out the window if necessary, I’m not sure I’d care too much if it edged us closer to the top of the pile.

As for tonight: Come on you rip-roaring reds. Keep going.

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Reading 1-2 (AET)

So it’s the FA Cup final for the second year running, Arsenal’s 19th of all time – a record. And if we go on to beat the Villa, it’ll be another record – 12 wins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Still, the grin on my face is only just beginning to subside.

I’ll spare you a match report, given how late in the day this is. Suffice to say, the old pot brought the best out of Reading and made us go all stodgy. It has a habit of doing that, as do Arsenal. We’ll need to play a lot better that on 30th May, or we’ll be filing out of Wembley miserable.

But like Wigan last year, and countless anxiety-riven semi-finals before it, it’s the getting through that counts, and get through we did. Roll on the final – now I just need to strike it lucky getting a ticket.

But the buzz was very much alive and kicking before, as I thought it would be, and that’s the magic of the cup for me. It’s something intangible that lifts a match from the mundane to the special. I loved it all.

It was there in the pub we were in beforehand, it continued on the tube (which ended up being more song-fuelled than the ground was) and it was there as we chased a winner at 1-1.

That said, it was a bit odd where we were in Row 9 behind the goal. I’m not sure if it was the blue and white of the Reading colours, or the sun that bathed the other end of the ground, or whether it was simply because we were low to the pitch, but we couldn’t see a thing happening down the other end. That wouldn’t have mattered if all the goals had been down our end, but they weren’t, and the upside was that when Arsenal scored both their goals, the reaction was for the first few seconds a bit muted. We simply couldn’t see what was happening, and many of us ended up turning backwards to look at the screen. That split second it took to realise made the celebrations a bit muted. Odd.

Then there was the tannoy, and yes, I sound like an old git when I keep banging on about it, but it’s horrific. It’s so loud, so grating and so completely unnecessary that you can barely hear yourself think. I said it on Twitter the other week, but who actually asks for that? Is there a groundswell of opinion that demands it? Are they mimicking other sports in other countries? It genuinely puts me off Wembley, a ground I otherwise don’t mind.

But otherwise, a cracking day. Hats off to Reading, who played out their skin and didn’t deserve to lose it the way they did. But we’re there – and I can’t wait.

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And here’s a little something else for you.

Bah humbug to anyone who can’t get their rocks off at the thought of an FA Cup semi-final, whoever the opponent.

I’ve been bouncing off the walls all week.

Competing at the business end for proper trophies, the nervous flutter of the pre-match stomach, the fear and the anticipation: that’s the essence of football, it’s what it’s all about. Big moments like these are what you remember when you end up looking back. Where were you when Ramsey scored? You won’t have to think too hard about that, it’ll be etched in your mind forever.

Read this fantastic article from the Times’ George Caulkin and you’ll see how lucky we as Arsenal fans are compared to others. I think we know it, deep down, though in the heat of things it’s easy to forget.

Think of all the times you were elated or despondent at a football match, and I suspect many of those will have been in the FA Cup. For all the scheduling lunacy, the Wembleyness of the semi-final and the loud blaring music over the tannoys at inopportune moments, the FA Cup is still something I can’t help but stay in love with.

Kenny Sansom flat hat, food and beer, mates, Wembley Way. It’s a routine I love.

Let’s just hope we don’t repeat the complacency of Monaco, or freeze like we did at this stage last year against Wigan. I have a string of photos taken during that game when we were a goal down and the clock was ticking, and the misery and anxiety on people’s faces was amazing. So please Arsenal: don’t do it to us again.

Forget the stats though: this is Reading’s one shot at glory, and we all know how transient glory is. They have nothing to lose so it’ll be an intriguing match. Of course we have the form and players that should see us through, but football doesn’t always work that way.

I can’t wait.

Come on you rip-roarers!

Hashtag nervous.

Burnley 0-1 Arsenal

Yesterday’s win was a gentle reminder that it’s not every week you fire off a three-goal, eight-minute salvo where all the goals were straight out ‘Dennis Bergkamp’s Little Book of Crackers’.

It was a more prosaic win, a festival of free kicks and half-chances broken up by Ramsey being in the right place at the right time to wrap the points up. Good job he scored, really, because it wasn’t the kind of game where clear-cut chances came easy at either end. In fact, it was when Welbeck came on and the shrugging Giroud came off where the game opened up a bit more to my liking. (Our glorious Gaul has had better games, but with seven goals in six games, that’s alright with me).

If the finish itself owed itself to a string bit of lucky bounces, the build-up was marvellous, with Coquelin like a tambourine clap through pigeons and Sanchez doing his usual impression of being everywhere at once. That one moment was enough, ultimately, against a team (lest we forget) that is battling for its Premier League existence.

With a squad bursting with unseasonal fitness, I was interested to see how we might line up on the bench. None of the most recent returnees were on it, which proves how hard – when you have a settled, winning team – it’s going to be to upset the applecart. I can’t see Arteta or Wilshere, for example, making the starting eleven until we have a game where there’s nothing to play for. The way the season’s panning out, when’s that going to be?

I wouldn’t want to make that decision and massage those precious egos. Which is probably one of the many reasons why Wenger is paid £8m a year and I am on a little bit less than that.

Great win, with the stand-out players being those in the engine room: Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla. And of course Sanchez, whose diet of raw fish, Red Bull and Castrol GTX continues to give him jaw-dropping energy levels. Eight wins on the trot, the perfect hors d’oeuvre for an FA Cup semi-final and the visit of Chelsea.

The Poldi effect

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I had a bit of insomnia the other night. When this happens – fortunately not too frequently – I don’t count sheep, of course I don’t. I think of football stats and lineups. For example, counting backwards through FA Cup winners (I always grind to a halt during the years when Chelsea won it a lot) or thinking of various Arsenal starting elevens going back through time.

So there I was at 3.30am thinking of the 1989 title-winning team, and got a bit tripped up by the fact we started three centre-backs. Onwards I moved to the 1998 Cup Final lineup, where I was promptly derailed by the inclusion of Christopher Wreh (I honestly have no recollection of that). My final one was last year’s FA Cup final team, and I blew that one too, mostly because I had completely forgotten that Podolski started it.

He feels like such a footnote now, doesn’t he? At the time he left I was a little anxious about losing his goalscoring prowess, but in hindsight it feels like something of a watershed. We cannot put our upswing in form and performances on his departure, of course we can’t, but it’s pretty obvious that Wenger counts much more now on players who work hard. Who are the stand-out players of the second half of the season? Coquelin, Giroud and Sanchez. All work their socks off. Who also plays where Podolski once played? Welbeck, whose lack of goals doesn’t matter thanks to what he gives to the team in pace, blood and sweat.

Who else seems to have married his innate technical beauty with a tougher attitude? Ozil.

That’s the benchmark now, which might explain why Theo is finding it so hard. With him, I maintain the injury has affected him mentally more than physically. But at the same time, he cannot fail to see the way the wind is blowing.

Podolski could barely get in the team before he left. He’d get nowhere near it now.

That’s me done.

Let the build-up to Wembley begin.

I love the FA Cup.

Bloody love it.

Good morning, and as the French say, ‘April Fish’.

Internationals have been and gone, and there seem to have been wall-to-wall matches since Thursday. Uefa changed this a few years ago, it transpires. Was it changed because:

a. We need to think about the fans more
b. To benefit the players
c. To maximise TV coverage and broadcast income

Clue: this is Uefa we are talking about.

Anyway, what do I care. I did watch England dismantle Lithuania. At the start of the game my ‘Eyes on TV to iPhone’ ratio was about 90:10, but after about ten minutes it was about 10:90. Gave me a chance at least to organise the folders on my phone (‘Stuff 1 and Stuff 2 are all over the place) and reinstate my Bergerac ringtone. So all’s well that ends well.

I watched England against Italy too, and quite enjoyed it. It made me feel a bit dirty, but it was nice to see Woy tweak and twang and turn a bit of a dog’s ear of a first half into a second half more akin to a sow’s purse. [How did your idiom training go? – Ed]

I thought Gibbsy did OK, though he did miss a Monreal in the second half, but Walcott was involved far too little. It seems very peculiar to me that he’s been playing centrally so much when it’s patently not where he is at his best. Against Monaco away, when we needed one more goal, he dolloped about in the middle when we could have done with him delivering the shizzle from out wide. He did the same against Italy, as well as playing at No 10, which is a bit like asking Berkgamp to fill in at right back.

I’ve been a big advocate for patience when it comes to Walcott, as he had a stinker of an injury, but he’s very peripheral at the moment. On this kind of form, the question is less “Can we turn down £25m for him” and more “Who would pay £25m for him”, but form changes fast and I’m sure his will improve. I’d still keep him, of course I would, but I am worried about how he’s played since his return, a few well-taken goals aside.

Incidentally, the answer to “Who would pay £25m for him” is still “many teams”. He was our top scorer two seasons ago.

Partly because he can be so much better than this, partly because it’s not a big outlay for an established international and partly because he’s English and so many teams have completely forgotten to buy or bring through English players.

Great to see four of our crocks back too – immaculate timing. As Arseblog says this morning, it will be interesting to see how we can fit them all in, Jack in particular. If Wenger has the nerve to genuinely rotate our midfield, then we might see a fair bit of him. He tends though to go with the same players when they are playing well – which is perfectly logical and reasonable – so Jack might have his work cut out unless we get an injury or two. What are the chances of that happening at Arsenal, I wonder?

Diaby, well let’s not hold our breath. Best case scenario is that he’s fit for a bit and can find himself a new club in the summer rather than having to retire. I suspect the options are that stark.

Saturday still seems some way off, but it’s pivotal. Before then though, it’s the Tony Colbert Magic Sponge Show.

Enjoy OK Wednesday. The starter gun has fired for Not Bad Thursday, then Good Friday. I’m hoping for Excellent Saturday, but if things go a bit sour we might need resurrecting ahead of the FA Cup semi-final.

Don’t worry, I’ve already got my coat and fled.

Newcastle 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal’s record after European games has not been too bad this season – DDWLWDWWW – but you never know how a team will cope both physically and psychologically after being dumped out of the competition, especially when coming so close to confounding the statistics.

The Champions League holds a big sway on the psyche of the players, bigger than anything else, so I always suspected yesterday would be harder than we thought. Turns out the players were weary of both body and mind, because those two halves were chalk and cheese.

Thank heavens for Olivier Giroud, who motored to seventeen goals with his two yesterday, drawing only two behind Alexis. He’s going to overtake him, isn’t he? Giroud’s carburettor’s, erm, clean (?) while Alexis’s tappets are – ahem – tapping.

There was me thinking the motoring metaphor was worth persevering with. Transpires it wasn’t.

But those two goals were so valuable, with Welbeck forgetting his shooting boots (he had several good chances and for all his good work must learn to take them better) and Alexis in his current goal funk. We weren’t to know it at the time, but Giroud’s knee and head were the cushions for us to cling onto the three points as we ran totally out of juice in the second half.

I’m sure the lack of Ozil played a part, but overall I think we were just dead beat. So on that basis, those were three of the finest points you will lay your eyes on.

We’re lucky that our squad options are decent at the moment, and Wenger made the right call by resting some players (in this case, Mertesacker and Bellerin). Had Ozil been fit, Cazorla might have had a rest too. Rosicky, maybe, should have started that would have meant both Ozil and Cazorla out the side.

Walcott’s omission could have been circumstantial. He’s morphed into more of a home player as Wenger leans toward harder-working players on the road. In fact, the only two games Walcott’s started this season have been at home (Villa and Leicester). Yesterday, Alexis and Cazorla were out on their feet and we were on the back foot. Walcott didn’t seem the right option to bring on when we needed players who could defend.

I’m not saying there are not other machinations behind the scenes. It’s pretty obvious, with his contract, that there are. But the problem in its essence is that when he does come on he’s just not doing enough. Personally, I maintain that his injury – one of the worst you can get in football – is still a factor. Not physically, but mentally. (Falcao had a similar injury – and look at him).

I think he’s still finding his way back in his own mind, but on top of that, the team has moved on without him. He’s a great option for us, but it does feel like he might be off in the summer, and I think that’s a shame. He might not be as integral as he used to be but every squad has to have different kinds of players, and our squad is better for having him in it. Not every player can be the same, or work in the same way. The trouble for Theo is less that he’s not tracking back or slogging his guts out trying to win the ball back – he’s never done that – and more that the things he excels at such as pace, running at defences, clinical finishing are not working either. When his strengths are not in evidence, his weaknesses are exaggerated.

For Theo, it’s one of those occasions when an international break has come at a good time. He really needs to play and I hope he’s selected for England.

Nine games to go, and I’m still cautious. While we are only a point of second, we are not that far off fifth either and it’s very much still a case of ‘hold onto your hat’.

All the more reason to raise a glass to yesterday’s three succulent, moorish, tasty points.

Arsenal 3-0 West Ham

Ping, ping, dummy, flick, goal – it was one of those days when Arsenal’s build-up passing slotted together like one of those massive 500-piece jigsaws. When it works it’s bewitching, and when it doesn’t it’s infuriating, but yesterday – when it counted – we ghosted through West Ham and it was a delight.

They were all at it in the one-touch club, but the main protagonists were Giroud, Ozil and Ramsey, with a hat-tip to the latecomer Cazorla (player of the season, anybody?)

Not that it was a 3-0 kind of game, really. The first half was all probing, stretching defences and was fairly even. The Hammers seemed to be targeting Chambers at right-back and got round the back two or three times, while we had a few good chances ourselves. Walcott was getting into good positions but looked a bit ring-rusty, perhaps understandably.

Confession: I missed the first goal because I’d gone to get an early sip of the half-time beer. There we were in the concourse (with hundreds of others, not that I’m making excuses for myself), singing throatily but with a hollow, sheepish edge as we realised Giroud had put us one up. That’s right, I’ve become the person I hate, complaining about ticket prices and tutting about the exorbitant cost of food and drink at the ground, only to slip out early to ensure Arsenal make even more profit. I am a hypocrite so feel free to reprimand, or just shake your head in sorrow.

So the first goal, ahem. Seemed good from where I was.

In the second period – I was in my seat by now, you’ll be glad to hear, watching the game with my actual eyes – it was tight for a while. Ozil, who was otherwise excellent again, over-elaborated to the tune of a trillion by lofting an impossible pass across the box when he should have just wellied it, and at that moment 57,000 people probably simultaneously muttered something like “this has got one-all written all over it” under their breath.

There was no need to panic. Welbeck came on and gave us a burst of energy, Cazorla entered the fray so we could have our dose of pocket dynamite, and we collectively stepped up a gear. Ramsey’s goal was a blur of passing interspersed with the kind of shimmy that probably once sent Mrs Giroud’s knees trembly in a French nightclub when Olivier hit the floor for some Bee Gees.

Then Cazorla one-twoed with Welbeck and Giroud, passed it across the goal and Nigel made it three.

Giroud, as an important aside, was excellent.

I wouldn’t call it a head of steam, more a faint whistle, but we’re building something up at the moment at a critical time. Five straight league wins puts us a mere point behind Man City, and with nine games to go I think it’s fair to say that three of the top four slots are – to coin a phrase from the late eighties – up for grabs now.

Good to see Walcott back too. I get the sense there’s a bit of revisionism going on at the moment about his value to the club. The landscape may have changed and the sands may have shifted, but I can’t think of any circumstances where not having him in the squad would be beneficial. Think back to how he was playing when he did his knee in – he was magnificent. Even operating at 70% of that, which is where he probably is now, he’s still getting into good positions. The more games he plays, the better he will get. He’ll always be slightly enigmatic, and he’s not the tackliest, runningbackest of players, but he does other things well.

It’s all set up for Mission: Improbable on Tuesday night. I’ve got a realistic angel over my left shoulder, wagging his finger and reminding me how we got lacerated on the counter in the first leg, and I’ve got an annoying, upbeat ‘What if’ angel over my right.

Right angel has come from nowhere – literally nowhere – and is desperately trying to sow the seed of excitement.

For my own sanity I wish he’d go away.