A great second goal from Ricardo Fuller, not an inexperienced team, saw us knocked out of the FA Cup.
After starting with a mix of youth and experience and battling back to level the game at 1-1, Arsene Wenger made the changes that I expected to help us push on and win the game. Andrey Arshavin, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey joined Cesc Fabregas, Denilson and Carlos Vela on the pitch to create a front six good enough to get the goal we needed.
It wasn’t to be however, as Mamady Sidibe raced down the flank to cross for Fuller to head home.
It would be easy to say that we lost this game because we started with an inexperienced team containing the likes of Francois Coquelin, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Craig Eastmond in key positions but the truth is that Stoke produced their moment of real quality when we had our best team on the park. As such, we shouldn’t make excuses.
There isn’t a defender in the league who could have prevented Fuller from getting of Sidibe’s inch-perfect cross, nor a goalkeeper of stopping his header. It was a tremendously precise goal which effectively decided the tie and sometimes you just have to accept that these things happen in football games. You just can’t win them all.
The game panned out in a fairly typical manner with Stoke causing the most trouble with the aerial threat provided by both Rory Delap’s throw-ins and some excellent crossing from the wide areas. Meanwhile we struggled to find our desired passing rhythm as Theo Walcott and Vela struggled to assert themselves, Coquelin seemed overawed by the occasion and Thomas’ over-enthusiasm saw him wander too far from his central striker duties.
That Stoke scored from their first attack, their first Delap throw-in, didn’t help. Lukasz Fabianski’s ill-conceived attempt to catch the ball on his chest rather than punching it clear with his arms extended allowed Fuller to nip in and the Jamaican striker’s header bundled in off the crossbar. It wasn’t the start we’d hoped for.
Our boys had recently come from behind to beat Liverpool, West Ham and Bolton and also struck late to salvage a draw with Everton, so there was no real reason for panic. We gradually took control of the game despite Stoke’s ever-present set-piece threat and just like at Bolton, pulled back a crucial goal just before half-time when Fabregas teed up Denilson to scuff home a shot from the edge of the area.
The goal seemed to give our team confidence and we emerged from the break in a far more relaxed manner, spreading the passes and generally keeping possession well. However, we had nothing to show in the final third for our efforts except for a Fabregas shot comfortably tipped over by Thomas Sorensen.
When the triple-substitution was made I was confident that we would go on to win the game. But it simply didn’t pan out that way as Fuller scored again before Dean Whitehead added a killer third with five minutes to play.
I was extremely disappointed to go out of the Cup but I see no real reason to be too critical of the team or the manager for the result. Wenger put out a team with enough quality to win the game while resting enough players to keep things fresh for the epic run of games coming up.
The effort and desire was there, the quality was undoubtedly lacking in patches, yet after getting ourselves in a good position to win the game we were undone by a quality goal. That’s all there is to it, really.
In terms of individual performances I feel that Sol Campbell’s commanding return merited a mention while Armand Traore’s attacking from deep on the left provided our best outlet over the 90 minutes. Mikael Silvestre sacrificed his body for the cause while Thomas’ overall effort was promising despite a lack of positional discipline.
Meanwhile Denilson, Vela and Walcott all disappointed while Fabianski endured a mixed evening between the sticks. At fault for the first goal, he responded well to generally dominate his area before making a couple of handling errors late on in the game.
I feel his performance – under tough conditions – was better than many people will give him credit for, yet he will need to iron out the kinks in his game before he is called up to replace Manuel Almunia. Considering the FA Cup is his best chance for minutes Fabianski will be as disappointed as anyone that we’ve been knocked out.
So another chance for a trophy in 2009/10 is gone but with an exciting quartet of games against Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool coming up that may soon be forgotten.
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