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The Arsenal Monday verdict: Gamble pays off but don’t get carried away

Arsenal players celebrate at Brighton on Saturday after earning a fifth round FA Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Arsenal players celebrate at Brighton on Saturday after earning a fifth round FA Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers. Photo: Chris Ison/PA

Monday, January 28, 2013
4:05 PM

Arsene Wenger got lucky at Brighton, but the FA Cup will take some winning

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Saturday’s trip to Brighton felt like a bit of a throwback for Arsenal fans; an old-fashioned FA Cup tie against fired-up lower-division opposition at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

There was a bit of a familiar feeling to the performance too, and one of the Gunners’ old nicknames came to mind after squeezing through to the last 16 at the first time of asking; lucky Arsenal.

Make no mistake, Arsene Wenger got away with it on Saturday after risking the wrath of his own supporters, press and pundits by leaving half of his first team on the bench at the Amex Stadium.

He almost paid the price, but in the end the gamble paid off. Wenger’s decision to rest Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Santi Cazorla and Bacary Sagna was just about vindicated, even if he did need to summon the first three from the bench with the game locked at 2-2 and heading for a replay.

When Wilshere and Walcott combined for the late winner, it was another decision that came off for the Frenchman, and left the triumphant Arsenal fans to stream into the pubs of Brighton to celebrate before dragging themselves back to London.

They knew only too well that another dubious defensive display could so easily have seen Gus Poyet’s admirable side progress or at the very least force a potentially problematic replay.

Leaving out some of the attacking players who had so decimated West Ham three days earlier was perhaps understandable with two vital Premier League games looming, but both first-choice full-backs was probably pushing it, especially with skipper Thomas Vermaelen already absent.

That was more changes than Brendan Rodgers made, with the Liverpool boss now being vilified after his side’s shock exit at Oldham, more than Andre Villas-Boas opted for even as his Spurs side were beaten at Leeds. And Arsenal were, in theory, facing a more capable side.

“It’s a gamble that you take,” admitted Wenger afterwards. “I left a few out. Cazorla completely as it was too risky to play him. With the number of games we play, you cannot play the same 11 players in every game.”

Everyone in football understands that these days, but only with victory comes vindication, and Wenger could reflect pleasingly on qualification gained while giving key players a breather ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Liverpool. “We did what we had to do,” added Wenger. “It’s a Cup game and we did our job well, we got through.”

They did just that, and after Sunday’s draw handed the Gunners a home tie with another Championship side, Blackburn Rovers, suddenly the latter stages of the tournament beckon.

Or do they? Arsenal will be favourites to overcome Blackburn and reach the last eight, but the continued presence of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City in the draw is ominous, despite the weekend exits of Spurs and Liverpool.

The Gunners have faced the Premier League’s top three five times this season and their current record reads W0, D1, L4. The only chance to buck that trend comes when Manchester United visit the Emirates at the end of April – or before then if paths cross in the Cup.

Realistically, Arsenal will probably have to beat one or two of those sides to get their hands on silverware, and given that their Capital One Cup hopes were ended by League Two Bradford City, no tie can be taken for granted.

The draw gives them a fighting chance, however. The Blackburn game is just three days before the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie with Bayern Munich. If United, or City or Chelsea had come out of the hat next to Arsenal’s name, Wenger would have been left with some big decision to make.

As it is, he will probably play his game of risk again on February 16 and utilise some fairly robust rotation. But push will come to shove eventually, and Wenger will have to decide what to prioritise.

The growing feeling among Arsenal fans heading back from Brighton on Saturday was that maybe, for once, Arsenal should start thinking about winning a trophy rather than finishing fourth to give themselves another shot at the holy grail of the Champions League.

For Wenger, that argument will never wash, and his board of directors probably agree. But there is no reason why both cannot be achieved and, after the weekend’s favourable events, that is what Gunners fans will cling to as they head into what looks a decisive month.

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