Yes, it’s true, Arsenal really do want to win the Carling Cup
Carling Cup quarter-final: Arsenal 2 Wigan Athletic 0
MUCH-MALIGNED it may have been for many a season, but the Carling Cup is very much on Arsenal’s priority list as they head into 2011 as the red-hot favourites to lift the trophy.
An own goal from the Wigan captain Antolin Alcaraz and a second-half effort from Nicklas Bendtner were enough to propel the Gunners into the semi-finals for the fourth time in six seasons.
They have never gone on to win the trophy, but this year the tournament seems to have opened up for Wenger’s side. It is now the perfect opportunity to end a trophy drought that stretches back, lest we forget, to May 2005.
Arsene Wenger needs no convincing that this competition, which he had treated with little more than disdain for the last dozen years, is now worth winning. And the Arsenal players and supporters are in agreement with him.
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The Emirates crowd are fed up of waiting, fed up of watching Chelsea and Manchester United dominate the major competitions and also walk away with the domestic cups most seasons too.
Arsenal want to get in on the act, and it seems that any trophy will now do. The theory that the Carling Cup can become a winning springboard for this side is a popular one and Wenger is clearly now targeting the Wembley final on February 27.
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The Arsenal manager had said he would play a strong side against Wigan as he had also done in the previous rounds at Tottenham and Newcastle, and he was true to his word, although Laurent Koscielny and Jack Wilshere were the only two players included who had also started at Villa Park on Saturday.
However, the reinforcements included the attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner, all of whom have so far endured injury-interrupted seasons.
Denilson joined Wilshere in front of the back four, while Carlos Vela was given a rare start out on the left flank, although the evening was to prove a frustrating one for the Mexican.
He was one of the worst culprits in a first half that saw Arsenal somehow fail to break Wigan’s resistance despite plenty of possession and numerous chances.
Bendtner set the tone b y failing to connect with a Van Persie free-kick inside the opening two minutes and then midway through the half Vela’s evening of comedy took over.
First he was clear in acres of space on the left wing but stumbled when running into the box and crossed weakly into the arms of Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi.
Then moments later he had all the time in the world to beat Al Habsi in a one-on-one, but tried what has become his trademark dinked finish only to send the ball trickling wide.
He was sent clear again by Van Persie’s delicious flick but fell over in the box, and by the time he headed an Emmanuel Eboue cross wide when it looked easier to score five minutes before the break, the Emirates was growing restless.
Luckily for the frozen fans, Alcaraz put them out of their misery by heading a Walcott corner into his own net to put Arsenal in front.
It was a deserved lead, even if its arrival was a little undignified, but after successive home defeats to Spurs and Newcastle, neither supporters nor players were complaining.
What was needed was a second goal and, while the unfortunate Vela was never going to provide it, he did help create the clincher on 65 minutes.
It was the one moment of real quality all night as Van Persie swept the ball wide to Vela, and the Mexican’s cross found Bendtner at the far post to slide in and nudge the ball in off the advancing Al Habsi.
Wenger showed his intent by bringing on Samir Nasri who almost added a third, and the night ended with Mexican waves and songs of Wembley returns.
It may be the fourth priority, and other teams – even Tottenham - may no longer be taking an interest in it. But Arsenal are up for the Carling Cup, and this time they might just get their wish.