Wednesday, 18 March 2009

FA Cup sixth round: Arsenal 2 - 1 Hull City - 18/03/2009

Robbed blind, but proud nonetheless. If Arsenal place so much importance and relevance on an FA Cup semi-final that they have to get there via a goal more blatantly offside than any of the awarded offside decisions, and then bleat gracelessly about their smaller opposition afterwards, they're welcome to it.

We feel like winners. We lost the game, and we have the referee we all loathe in Hull for that, but the feeling of pride is immeasurable.

Mike Riley's done this before to us. He sent off four players - two from each side - when City beat Burnley at the KC last season. Fortunately the game was already out of the opposition's reach so the damage to the Tigers' cause was minimal - pointless substitutions for Caleb Folan and Jay Jay Okocha aside - but he ruined the game entirely with decisions which acknowledged the law but trampled on the spirit.

This season, he stitched up Sam Ricketts against Sunderland with two yellow cards which were bookable more for the appalling dramatics deployed by the fouled players than they were for the tackles the full back had put in.

But try this one for size.

Arsenal take an 83rd minute free kick. It's flicked on as Boaz Myhill comes out to punch and William Gallas - positioned at least two yards beyond any opponent including the goalkeeper, back heads the ball into the net.

And the goal, unbelievably, scandalously, is given.

Riley and his assistant had managed to rule out a Nick Barmby effort in the first half from the same position and from a much less cut and dried offside position. Barmby was offside, just. So how come they can spot this one but not an infinitely more crowbarred one for the opposition at such a crucial stage in the game?

Gallas scored to make it 2-1, you see. Ten minutes earlier Arsenal finally made it 1-1 after a heroic Tigers rearguard that ensured that as much pride in the players was on show at the final whistle as their was vitriol towards the officials.

Phil Brown, later to claim that Arsenal's injured skipper Cesc Fabregas spat at City assistant boss Brian Horton as the post-match recriminations brewed up, picked a strong starting XI which even allowed for the late withdrawal of Michael Turner as a precautionary measure.

No problem there, as Kamil Zayatte dropped back into defence alongside Anthony Gardner. Andy Dawson replaced the cup-tied Kevin Kilbane, while Barmby, Manucho and Peter Halmosi all got starts. The bench looked very weak, with Daniel Cousin nowhere to be seen and fringe players like Bryan Hughes and Nicky Featherstone all getting a spot.

City got underway with some welcome urgency, and Manucho broke clear of Johan Djourou early on but chose not to shoot when the opportunity seemed to present itself. Arsenal were slow and, similarly to the Premier League encounter back in September, not taking their opponents greatly seriously.

So it was less of a surprise, though a most welcome and ecstatic moment, when City took a 13th minute lead. Dawson played a through ball to Barmby who, appreciating where Lukasz Fabianski was, opted to try a 25 yard lob which was aided over the Polish custodian via a Djourou deflection. Utter bedlam in the away end, and City lead. Crumbs.

It could have been two when, just five minutes later, Geovanni cracked a shot just over the bar after superb work in a tight corner by Manucho. Halmosi then went on a fabulous, gliding run through the Arsenal defence from his own half and was hacked down. The free kick was - finally - on target from Geovanni but Fabianski made a superb fingertip save.

From the corner, a half clearance reaches Dawson who fires goalwards. Barmby gets a touch and the flag goes up as the ball hits the net. Offside! You see, they can do it right sometimes, they can...

Arsenal began to emerge after the half hour mark. Andrey Arshavin looks a wonderful footballer and beyond the controversies, he was a privilege to watch. Sent down the left channel, he cut inside Ricketts with ease and hit a vicious goalbound shot which Gardner cleared from under Myhill's nose.

Theo Walcott, looked after so well by Dawson in September's immortal victory, galloped for the line but was robbed cleanly and vigorously by a fantastic Zayatte tackle, with more rearguard heroics following when Ricketts used his whole body as a barrier as Arshavin shot goalwards from Walcott's cross.

Arshavin then hit a crazy, narrow-angled volley which seemed destined for the top corner but arched just wide. The half time whistle shrilled and, crikey, we were ahead at Arsenal yet again, and had weathered their attacking storm yet again.

The second half introduces Bryan Hughes for the injured Ian Ashbee, hopefully just for precautionary reasons, and a whole new outlook for the Tigers. Attacking was less of an option, despite the continued willingness of Manucho, Barmby, Geovanni and especially Craig Fagan, who looked incredibly dangerous throughout. But Arsenal, with a rocket up their backsides, started to camp in the City penalty area and although every minute that ticked by was greeted with relief, it did seem a mere question of time.

Arshavin made room in the box for a clear shot but again Zayatte hurled himself into a resolute block. From the corner, Alex Song sent a swivelling left-foot volley inches wide.

Barmby fouled Abou Diaby as he charged boxwards, and Van Persie's curling free kick was batted aside brilliantly by a stretching Myhill. A great save. A continuing rearguard.

A corner, in the last 20 minutes. Arshavin swings it in and Gallas wins the header but it clips the bar on its way over. Still the Tigers cling on, again just like back in September. But then...

Substitute Nicklas Bendtner pulls Hughes away from a loose ball and crosses low. Arshavin could finish it, but instead calmly feeds the onrushing Van Persie who finish the task with expected aplomb. It's level at last and beyond the disappointment among the Tiger Nation, instantly we wonder if we can cling on for a replay.

City attack for the first time in the half. Fagan finds room to knock a ball Geovanni's way and the onrushing Brazilian cracks a shot inches wide of Fabianski's near post. Close, but not quite enough.

Bendtner flicks a Diaby ball into Van Persie's path but the volley goes straight to Myhill. Young full back Kieran Gibbs is then played through by Arshavin but pokes his panicky shot straight at the City goalkeeper.

The finally, the moment which ruined City's performance, whatever remained of Mr Riley's reputation and Arsene Wenger's own hopes of being able to complain about refs again. Oh, and our hopes of going back to Wembley and appearing in our first semi-final for 79 seasons.

Substitute Samir Nasri clips in a free kick which Myhill tries to collect. The keeper is beaten to the dipping ball by Djourou's nod, and the conclusively offside Gallas backheads in. It's a goal, according to the records. It's not a goal, according to the laws. This must mean Mr Riley either feels above the laws, or doesn't know them. You choose.

We did try to come back, but the stuffing was gone. Geovanni should have won a free kick on the edge of the box but didn't, and Gardner - sent up as an emergency striker - had a shot which could have been blocked by a hand. Neither decision, of course, went City's way. We were now merely awaiting the fireworks of post-match, and boy did we get some.

I don't know if Fabregas spat at Horton but while it's an abhorrent thing to do, I care more for how Mr Riley will be assessed for his performance. It was a scandalously inept, one-eyed, dishevelled, discrediting, shameful evening of officiating thanks to some of the most incident-free bookings ever handed out as well as the winning goal that plainly shouldn't have been.

I have no beef with Arsenal, though their manager is a slimy, humourless, Machiavellian piece of work. They can enjoy Wembley, where Chelsea will beat them. We can be proud of getting so far in the Cup for the first time in 38 years and, just like last time, know that defeat was more down to the incompetence of others rather than ourselves.

Arsenal: Fabianski, Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Gibbs, Walcott (Eboue 82), Song Billong (Bendtner 64), Diaby, Vela (Nasri 64), Van Persie, Arshavin. Subs not used: Mannone, Toure, Denilson, Silvestre.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Gardner, Zayatte, Dawson, Ashbee (Hughes 46), Barmby (France 76), Geovanni, Fagan, Manucho, Halmosi (Mendy 67). Subs not used: Duke, Garcia, Folan, Featherstone.