16 April 2005

FA Cup Semifinal: Arsenal 3-0 Blackburn

A poor game, but a fantastic win for the Gunners.

Frankly, Blackburn never looked to have much chance of scoring. Early in the first half, their defensive stance meant that Arsenal too didn't threaten much, and Brad Friedel once again performed brilliantly. But as the game wore on, Arsenal were able to mount more and more pressure, finally breaking through in the 42nd minute through Robert Pires. That opened the game up, and in the second half, Arsenal were able to dominate, holding the bulk of possession and finally getting two wonderful insurance goals from Robin Van Persie.

But oh, what a cynical affair from Blackburn. It's one thing to plan for a physical game. But from the outset it was clear that Rovers would go beyond physical and would try to either provoke or intimidate the Gunners. Challenges were made with studs showing and without regard for the ball. For example, early in the second half, Brad Emerton came sliding in for a ball that Jens Lehman had already claimed, leaving his studs up and catching Lehman on the thigh. Just a few minutes later, Robby Savage came flying in on Cesc Fabregas, putting his studs square on Cesc's exposed knee. Those are just two examples from a few minutes' space. Neither drew a card, and there were several other similar fouls that went unpunished, despite the four yellows that Blackburn took home.

Arsenal's class was quite a contrast to Blackburn's thuggery. In one memorable (but ultimately fruitless) segment, Arsenal strung together two straight minutes of posession, without allowing Blackburn a single touch on the ball. Beginning with a pass from Lehman, the Gunners put together 50 straight passes, giving everyone multiple touches (save Lehman) and knocking off 2:10 on the clock.

The class also showed on all three goals. The first was a fine affair from Kolo Toure of all people. Already forward for a free kick, he chased down a cross at the back post, pulled back inside his defender, then fired a wicked close-in cross that Pires hammered home. Pires looks like the luckiest player around -- always in the right place at the right time -- but it's clear that this is due to his read of the game. His goals look so easy because he's such a smart player. But Toure's move shows Arsenal's danger, with a center-half dancing on the ball in the opposition 6-yard box.

Van Persie's two goals were individual works of art. The first was simple individual brilliance. Taking a Viera pass under pressure, 15 yards outside the box, Van Persie first made a brilliant turn on Lucas Niell, followed by a nifty skip past the tackle from Andy Todd, quickly releasing himself on goal. He then efficiently buried the shot from just inside the box, leaving Friedel no chance.

His second goal was simpler but equally skillful. Taking the pass off Pires' wonderful run, Van Persie shot on the half-volley and again found the far-post netting. He turned to celebrate and was laid out by the shoulder and elbow of Andy Todd, ending up quite bloody and dazed. It's not at all clear whether Todd's blow was intentional. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but following Blackburn's unrelenting physical assault, it's hard to be forgiving. We shall see what the FA thinks upon review of the tape.

So: the end result is that we're in the final. We'll find out tomorrow which United team we'll face (Manchester or Newcastle). I think there's a valid question whether Arsenal's FA Cup success has historically come at the expense of their Champions League failures. But nonetheless it's their best chance at silverware this season, and Arsenal will give their all in the final game. We'll just have to see what game their opponents bring.

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