Cup finals are the next mental hurdle for Wenger’s Arsenal
Gunners have only one way to rid themselves of their cup final hoodoo, writes Martin Caparrotta
A sense of disbelief swept over the Arsenal fans at Wembley following the catastrophic defensive mix-up that led to Birmingham City’s winner.
But the scenario was all too familiar.
Juliano Belletti in 2006, Didier Drogba in 2008 and now Obafemi Martins in 2011. Three cup finals. Three 2-1 defeats. Three goals conceded after the 80-minute mark.
Even Arsene Wenger, who has so often heaped praise on his side for their supposed psychological toughness, will worry about the potentially destructive repercussions of Sunday’s defeat.
Arsenal are hoping to reach two other Wembley cup finals this term and though Wenger freely admits the Carling Cup comes fourth on his silverware wish-list, he will be concerned by the prospect of his side’s season unravelling with the trips to Camp Nou and Old Trafford looming large.
Though he is habitually protective of his troops, the Frenchman has admitted his young side have simply crumbled under the pressure at crucial points in the past.
“Sometimes it is a subconscious feeling that we have not won yet so we get a bit nervous when we have to become really concrete,” he said after Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat to Tottenham last November.
Yet this is a season in which Wenger’s Jekyll and Hyde Arsenal have shown the prowess to come from behind to seal a famous win over Barcelona just 11 days after letting a four-goal lead slip at Newcastle.
And Arsenal’s manager remained defiant after Sunday’s defeat. “We will face a lot of questions, but we have to be strong enough to stand up,” he said. “It is a good opportunity to show that we have the mental strength to respond to the situation.”
Just as their emphatic 3-1 win over Chelsea last December ended the talk of a mental hurdle when lining-up against the top teams, the Gunners have only one way to rid themselves of their cup final hoodoo.
The defeat, however, has already triggered a flurry of knee-jerk demands for a summer spending spree at the Emirates.
But although the clamours for silverware in north London are as intense as ever, Wenger’s unquestionable gift for nurturing young talent has made it all too easy to overlook the crucial backbone of experienced players he had at his disposal when Arsenal last tasted league success.
Only three of the Gunners’ first choice starting XI were younger than 27 at the start of their unbeaten league campaign in 2003. Yet just four of Arsenal’s starting line-up -without the injured pair of Cesc Fabregas (23) and Theo Walcott (21) -were aged 27 or above at Wembley on Sunday.
As the impatient call for reinforcements, the more accepting will give Wenger’s youngsters just a little more time.