The Gunners needed an extra-time goal from Sanchez to overcome lower-league Reading 2-1 in the semifinals of the FA Cup on Saturday. They will get the chance to retain their title by facing Aston Villa in their last match of the season as Sherwood’s side stunned Liverpool 2-1 on Sunday.
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Wenger made four changes to the team that edged Burnley 1-0 the previous weekend with Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs and Welbeck replacing Ospina, Bellerin, Monreal and Giroud in the starting lineup. Fullback is a demanding position so it made sense to give Debuchy and Gibbs some playing time while resting Monreal and Bellerin. Both Debuchy and Gibbs looked rusty and produced unconvincing performances. Up front, Welbeck got very little service and couldn’t repeat the same workrate he displayed against Manchester United in the quarterfinals.
In the end, those changes hurt the fluidity of our game. Welbeck’s link-up play is not as good as Giroud’s while Debuchy’s reluctance to make runs down the right flank deprived Arsenal of the width needed to stretch the Reading defense. However, Wenger made no change in midfield, keeping his faith in Coquelin, Cazorla and Ozil. That spoke volumes about the importance of this game for the manager. It also showed that Wilshere is still short of match fitness.
Clarke was Mourinho’s assistant in his first spell at Chelsea. So it was no surprise to see Reading well drilled defensively, parking the bus and looking to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Reading showed outstanding commitment and proved strong in challenges while Arsenal played at a too average pace to seriously trouble the Championship side. To put it bluntly, the Royals gave 110 percent compared to just 90 percent for the Gunners.
The Gunners were in control of the game in the first half, limiting Reading to two chances. But the Royals gave the defending champions a run for their money after the break with five chances in the second half to force extra time. I think what made the difference was the good understanding between Ozil and Sanchez on the one hand and between Ramsey and Giroud on the other.
Sanchez showed his impressive workrate again. He outjumped a defender in the 26th to meet a cross from Debuchy but headed straight at Federici. A few seconds later, Sanchez was clipped by the Reading goalkeeper while chasing a through ball from Cazorla. Sanchez had beaten Federici to the ball, knocking it forward. It could have been a yellow card at least if the referee thought Sanchez had attempted to dribble past Federici. But Atkinson thought Sanchez simply shot wide before colliding with the goalie.
Sanchez got the better of Federici in the 39th. Reading gave Ozil plenty of time to spot a diagonal run from the Chile forward. Sanchez controlled Ozil’s clipped pass before dribbling past McCleary to poke the ball through Federici’s legs for the opening goal. In the 15th minute of extra time, Sanchez scored the winner by taking a pass from Ozil to cut inside Gunter and fire a low angled strike that Federici fumbled into his own net.
Ozil is like a barometer. He plays well when his team dominates, but fades when it struggles. The Germany playmaker curled a free kick wide in the 18th, missed the target from the edge of the box in the 79th and dragged a shot wide from 16 yards in the 17th minute of extra time. Leadership is definitely an area in which Ozil needs to improve. It was the opposite with Ramsey, who proved average when the Gunners were in control, but raised his game when his team needed a winner.
The partnership between Ramsey and Giroud didn’t materialize into goals on Saturday but it helped create chances and put more pressure on the Reading defense. Sanchez led a counterattack in the 84th and found Giroud, who played Ramsey in. Held by a defender, Ramsey still managed to pull the trigger but was denied by Federici. The rebound fell to Ramsey, who struck the post from three yards. Ramsey should have done better by placing the ball instead of going for power. The Wales midfielder had another opportunity in the 89th when Gibbs charged down the left flank. Ramsey connected with Gibbs’ cutback but sent his first-time effort over the bar. In the 14th minute of extra time, Federici was lucky to divert Ramsey’s 25-yard drive over the bar.
Mertesacker’s ankle injury
The Gunners were more threatening after Giroud replaced Welbeck in the 72nd. Welbeck’s only half-chance came from a long ball from Gibbs in the fifth minute. The England striker couldn’t beat Federici from a tight angle and struggled to find his best position in Arsenal’s passing game. Giroud almost immediately had an impact while playing a one-two with Sanchez in the 77th but Sanchez overhit his pass. The Frenchman then headed a Cazorla free kick straight into Federici’s arms in the 90th. Giroud nearly made it 3-1 in the 22nd minute of extra time but hit the post from eight yards.
The Royals were a tough nut to crack but I thought they were quite vulnerable on set pieces. Mertesacker made a run at the near post in the eighth minute for a downward header that was saved by Federici. The Royals poorly defended the near post again in the 69th. Paulista met a corner from Ozil but had his header tipped onto the bar by Federici. Four minutes later, an unmarked Paulista failed to catch the frame with a seven-yard header from an Ozil free kick.
Mertesacker had a good game, deflecting out Chalobah’s half-volley in the 14th, but was replaced by Paulista in the 63rd after rolling his ankle. I still have mixed views on Paulista. The Brazilian centerback made cynical fouls on Mackie in the 78th and Williams in extra time. He also lost a key duel in the 87th, forcing Koscielny to face two Royals. Koscielny didn’t dive in and led Pogrebnyak to hit a tame shot while the better option was a pass to Mackie. Paulista’s best contribution was to block’s Pogrebnyak’s effort in the 15th minute of extra time after a poor touch from Debuchy gave Reading a counterattacking opportunity.
Blame it on the fullbacks
Kudos to Koscielny for keeping Arsenal in the game in the 87th but his positional play is still dodgy. Mackie in the 12th and Pogrebnyak in the 64th were flagged offside although TV replays showed Koscielny played them onside. Reading may complain about those two poor calls. Yet, the referee also missed blatant fouls on Arsenal players with Obita poking Ramsey in the eye in the third minute, Robson-Kanu swinging an elbow at Koscielny in the 27th and McCleary stepping on Ozil’s ankle in the 74th.
Reading’s equalizer in the 54th came from mistakes made by Debuchy and Gibbs after a throw-in. Pogrebnyak made a cross for McCleary, whose volley took a deflection off Gibbs to beat Szczesny. Pogrebnyak too easily skipped past Debuchy on that play while Gibbs failed to mark McCleary. Gibbs was six yards away from McCleary and failed to close him down despite having a quick look at the Reading winger before the cross.
Gibbs carelessly lost possession a couple of times in the first half and failed to stop McCleary’s cross that led to Obita’s half-volley in the ninth minute. Ramsey was a bit late for the block but Szczesny made the save. Szczesny had a good game, stopping a long-range strike from Chalobah in the 83rd. You can’t really blame him for the equalizer since he had very little time to adjust to the deflection.
Bellerin and Monreal should get the nod at fullback when the Gunners host Chelsea in the Premier League next Sunday. They have the opportunity to consolidate second place by opening up a four-point lead over Manchester United. Whatever the result, the Blues won’t be able to clinch the title at the Emirates stadium.