I can handle a whimper as long as there’s one last bang

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.

Squeezing into the final, Arsenal style

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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.

FA Cup final preview: I can’t wait

“Absolutely chuffing blinding”, I said right here in 2005 as Patrick Vieira lobbed his cup-winning grenade at Utd, “it really doesn’t get better than this”.

And that, looking back, was just a year after our Invincibles season, a mere two years since our last FA Cup win, and just three years after we’d won the double.

We were serial trophy winners then, and I was still bowled over; knocked sideways. Nine years on, and who’d have thought it then – we’ve not won a pot since. Come close a few times, sure – on various stages – but fallen short. There’s not been enough of the ‘chuffing’ and we’ve been deficient in the ‘blinding’ department to the tune of any.

So yes, it’s a laborious way of saying I’m excited. The cup’s never lost its allure for me, and if Twitter is my guide (my skittish guide) then the feeling is widespread.

Of course, this is Arsenal and it’s never that simple anyway. On tomorrow rides the future perception (and maybe even the future) of Arsene, of this promising squad that’s won nothing and of the hopes of millions of angst-ridden gooners.

I look back with generally good memories on my experience of FA Cup finals. I vaguely recall Brooking’s forehead killing us off in ‘80, but luckily I was young and at that point I was more into Star Wars figures.

I watched the ‘93 final from my then abode in Paris. It got messy after that game, if I recall, which I don’t, though I think someone may have put some washing up liquid in a fountain.

The first I went to was 1998, when we were far too good for Newcastle. I was in Cardiff in 2001, when the less said about the result the better, though it was warm and sunny. I was on holiday in New York in 2002 (schoolboy scheduling error), but I was present and correct in 2003 (in the rain, under the roof) to watch Le Bob make it three cups in six years. Then there was 2005. That’s not a bad record.

That brings us to now. It’s a one-off game, and as we all know they don’t always do what you want them to. All I ask, and I don’t think we got this in 2011, is a performance where the players are focused to within an inch of their lives, and give all they’ve got.

Wenger might dispute that, putting it down to bad luck and a bad error, but I remember watching the Birmingham players before that final huddling together and immensely focused, while ours sauntered about. I had a bad feeling from the off. We can’t afford any complacency at all.

The good news is, we’ve changed a lot since then, I think, in terms of character. Look at this from the Evening Standard on Thursday, and you’ll see who we had in our squad then.

Honestly, compare then and now. Sure, we’re still a way off where we want to be, and we’ve had some right mares this season, some truly baffling cave-ins, but look at that squad and look at ours now. I think we’re going in the right direction.

I’m so excited. As excited as I was in 2006 as we thundered down the Boulevard St Michel with Oxford Matt, Feverpitch and my brother Charlie, in a pick-up truck, flags dangling everywhere, windows down, playing Riddimkilla.

I’ve not been a Gunner Since ‘79. I’d say it was more like ‘80. But if you get tired of this, you’re in the wrong business. If you prefer fourth every year to this – to the nerves, the excitement, the flags draped from houses (and from Piebury Corner), the random people coming up to you at work and wishing you well, then have a long think.

I can’t wait. It’s the FA Cup final.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Exhausted 1-1 Frazzled (knackered after penalties)

FA Cup semi-final

FA Cup semi-final

There really is no need to tire yourself out over three or four hours by running a 26-mile marathon. You can do it far more effectively by watching Arsenal these days, and in half the time. I am exhausted.

We’re through to the cup final, and that’s the beautiful bottom line. But looking round at the faces in the crowd, as I periodically did, just confirmed to me that while football can be joy, ecstasy and bliss rolled into one, it can just as equally be about as fun as a trip to the dentist. There were blank faces, ashen faces, looks of fatalism, crossed arms of doom and wails of anguish.

It was painful to watch, for the most part. Seeing the team you love struggle so badly for form, for ideas, for pace. They looked leaden-footed; a very average side.

120 minutes of largely forgettable football, followed by the lottery of penalties. Fabianski has a good record with spot kicks – does he keep his place for the final now? I’d be a bit baffled if he did, given he’s off. It’s clear this team needs to win something to believe, and it’d be very harsh on Szczesny to miss out on his first chance to etch a trophy onto his goalpost. Those are the moments that make careers, the making of teams and players. Would it be harsh on Fabianski? Not really, he’s leaving.

We always hear how winning breeds winning, and I hope yesterday (though it was kind of a draw) goes some way to infusing the players with some confidence and belief. But with Arsenal, you just don’t know. We have the look of a team that wants the season to end now.

Overall though, the rapid ageing and hypertension aside, it was a good day. I woke up with cup fever and loved the atmosphere of the day, meeting friends, the cameraderie and the walk up Wembley Way. It’s remarkably evocative for a lifeless, tatty suburb, isn’t it?

We’re in the cup final. That feels good. There was an explosion of relief, of joy, but mostly relief when Cazorla scored the winning penalty. Then we all drifted out, spent. Dragging our tired minds and bodies with us.

“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I asked as I shuffled on the spot in a state of agitation, before the penalties.

“You said those very same words at Villa Park in 1999, shuffling on the spot” I was reminded.

Humans are silly creatures sometimes. We have an amazing knack of forgetting. And of coming back for more against our better judgement. That’s football but ye gods, it puts you through the mill.

Into the valley of dearth rode the 50,000

I woke up at 6am, bright as a button, and football rarely does that to me these days.

It must be FA Cup semi-final day.

The days have long gone where this involves getting the car ready, hanging the scarves and flags from the windows and slipping @feverpitch’s mixtape into the trusty tape deck before heading off to Birmingham or Manchester.

Tube it is then.

By all accounts there will be 50,000 other Arsenal fans heading to Wembley, perhaps more, a phenomenally lop-sided game in terms of support. We might be permanently tormented by numerous anxieties but – let’s be frank here – that’s been our default position for years now. It’s never stopped us turning up in our thousands before and it clearly won’t today.

I’m excited, genuinely excited, by our tilt at the old jug. This is what it’s all about: we’re having a crack at something that really matters. It’s been far too long.

Ordinarily, a team lying fourth in the league and in the semi-final of the cup would be seen to be doing pretty well, but this is Arsenal and things are never that simple. The match takes place to a backdrop of dismal form, swathes of injured players and very real and reasonable doubts about the direction of the team and the manager’s future.

It’s a lethal combination when it comes to overall confidence, but it’s hardly baseless pessimism. We’re in a massive rut. Last season we tightened up and went on an impressive end-of-season run to secure the Fourth Cup. This year, we’ve ground to a halt and gone into reverse.

The cup though, lest we forget, has been an oasis of calm. We’ve beaten everything thrown at us with some applomb. So it will be interesting to see how the players start today. Will the shackles be off a bit, or will the nerves descend like a fog?

Forgive me for bringing it up, but I remember as I waited for the Carling Cup final to start in 2011 seeing the Birmingham players huddle in concentration, and compared it to our players who were all sauntering about laughing. That day, we were complacent and we paid for it.

I don’t think there’ll be any of that today. They’ll bust a gut. Today though it’s about dragging tired bodies and minds into some semblance of form. Not hurtling forward shapelessly. Defending stoutly. Back to basics, as Wenger has said. But above all, the players need to enjoy the day like the fans will.

Big day, massive day. Exciting day. Come on you rip-roarers!

Match report: The wait goes on

Wembley

Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City

As a football fan you roll with the highs, but you also have to cope with the lows. Barcelona, a few weeks ago, was as good as it gets. Yesterday, losing in the last minute to an amateur defensive error, was of course the opposite.

You could line up the disappointing aspects of that game and ask them to form an orderly queue, but for me the most frustrating thing was the way we played. We had good, short bursts in each half, and plenty of possession, but overall the Arsenal that we wanted to see just wasn’t there for enough of the game. We did make Ben Foster work at times, and scored a superb equaliser, but we just didn’t do enough. I have no idea why.

Of course, credit to Birmingham. They hustled and harried, knew our weaknesses, played to them well, and it worked. We were undone by bad defending at a set piece and by a freak defensive howler. Had we played better it may not have mattered. But in a tight game like yesterday’s, those mistakes were pivotal. They deserved to win and you can’t begrudge them a first major trophy since 1963. That’s a lot more than a six year wait.

We missed Walcott and Fabregas, but that’s no excuse. Most of our best XI was out there but how many of them can you say played the game of their lives? Wilshere was tireless again but he couldn’t do it all on his own. There’s little point hauling players over the coals but I do look at Rosicky with increasing frustration these days. I don’t think he’s done enough in recent weeks to merit a starting place in a cup final, and he struggled again yesterday. But there you go – he wasn’t the only one.

As for the goals, well both were easily avoidable. It was not the finest hour for Koscielny or Szczesny. I imagine they’re feeling particularly blue this morning.

It was a big test, and we failed it. Wenger desperately wanted to win this to push on and hush the naysayers, but the wait goes on. He’ll be as frustrated as anyone that we did not rise to the occasion. Were we hampered by the ‘need’ to win something? We could debate that until the cows came home.

The fans filing out at the end were pretty mutinous (‘Wenger get your chequebook out’ being a familiar refrain). There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam at the end of a bitter defeat. It was pretty hard to be anything other than downbeat.

I dipped into the interwebs and sure enough, there are already acres of newsprint dedicated to the potential psychological effect of this defeat on our prospects for the rest of the season. Certainly, it will be hard to shake off. But luckily for us we have a very winnable FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Better that way than a ten-day wait to stew on things.

The reaction again the O’s will be interesting. The team Wenger picks will be interesting.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.

Need a pick-me-up? Own an iPhone? Here’s a wallpaper made from the ’92 away shirt to cheer you up.