Carling Cup final: Time Arsenal rediscovered that winning feeling
Almost six years without a trophy can come to an end at Wembley on Sunday
CARDIFF, 21 May, 2005. Patrick Vieira steps up to the penalty spot and scores emphatically past Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll. Arsenal have won the FA Cup.
Although the quality of the opposition and the drama of the conclusion made it a memorable triumph, in truth this victory was nothing special to Arsenal fans. Success had become the accepted norm. An expectation, not a hope.
It was, after all, the seventh major trophy the Gunners had lifted in eight seasons. More would surely follow – Arsene Wenger’s masterful vision could result in nothing less.
If only Gunners fans had been able to have a glimpse into the crystal ball of the future that day in the Millennium Stadium, they would surely have enjoyed it a little more.
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Five barren seasons have followed – no cup triumphs, no league titles, no European glory. They have come close – never more so than in the Champions League final of 2006 when beaten to the ultimate prize by Barcelona – but a trophy has proved elusive.
A Carling Cup final has also been lost, 2-1, to bitter rivals Chelsea on an acrimonious day back in Cardiff in 2007, while Didier Drogba’s goals also ended an FA Cup run by the same score in the 2009 semi-final at Wembley.
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With each defeat, each passing season that the gleaming trophy cabinet at the Emirates Stadium has remained full of only replicas from old glories, the pressure has increased on Wenger and his players. The thirst for success has become frantic, desperate almost.
Perhaps that is why, in the third round of this season’s Carling Cup with Arsenal handed a tough draw away at Tottenham, Wenger surprised everybody by fielding an undeniably strong side.
The Frenchman had realised in meetings with shareholders at the previous year’s Annual General Meeting that success was what the club’s supporters craved. They hated those meek cup exits with weakened teams at Burnley and Stoke in 2009-10.
At this year’s AGM Wenger declared: “I can promise you that we will play with a strong team in all competitions.” He has been true to his word.
The end result is a first cup final appearance since that defeat to Chelsea four years ago – and a great chance to win the first trophy of the Emirates era.
“We try to win everything we can,” insisted Wenger after the 3-1 aggregate semi-final win over Ipswich booked his side’s place at Wembley. “The Carling Cup is not the only target we have of the season, we have even bigger targets, but it can help us to achieve the other targets.
“What I am convinced is we will go with the same heart for everything.
“We have a chance to deliver, but it will be down to delivering the needed performance on the day. That is part of mental strength as well.
“This team is hungry for success. You could see they kept going and refused to show any weakness [in the semi-final]. We are team who has taken off a while ago and are consistent now.
“It is important we go from strength to strength – if we are capable.”
Beating Birmingham should certainly be within Arsenal’s capabilities – they have already done so twice in the Premier League this season, including a resounding 3-0 triumph at St Andrew’s on New Year’s Day.
But a cup final is a one-off game and, as Wenger knows only too well from his 15 years in the English game, you can take nothing for granted.
Arsenal fans who thought success was just around the corner in 2005 now realise that it was not the case.
There have been mitigating circumstances, of course. Arsenal have left Highbury, built and paid for the Emirates Stadium, and set the platform for years of prosperity.
But it is on-field success that supporters crave. The Gunners have always finished in the top four, always played in the Champions League, but the fans want trophies and feel that they have waited long enough.
The Carling Cup has never been high on Wenger’s priority list, and to some it feels that Arsenal have lowered their own high standards by targeting it this season.
Wenger has so often used it as a finishing school for his young academy graduates that some find it difficult to get excited about winning a competition that has been so derided by so many in the past.
But many other fans, and Wenger himself it seems, want the players – most of whom have never won anything in their careers – to get that taste for victory.
Sunday’s game and the trophy at stake may not be the pinnacle of their ambitions, but it will do for starters.