All that stands in our way is a side we haven’t beaten on their own back yard since the days when neither the infant me nor Neil Ruddock were yet out of nappies (Yep, the ‘just a kid’ jibes are sound if you want to fire in some criticism). Back when England won a penalty shoot-out and the Cup holders were, well, Everton. Simpler times.
Arsenal, then. Now there’s a side that are a victim of their own success. Every first loss is treated like a personal kick in the bollocks for the Invincibles, every player is compared to a much, much more talented predecessor, Birmingham and Swansea fans make jibes about trophies and the cavernous Emirates Stadium means that the die-hards can’t make themselves heard over the muffled affirmations that the salmon and blue cheese bagels really are divine by thousands of fairweather seat-fillers. I don’t want to live in a world where sitting in a football ground is that comfortable. It’s not natural.
I must say, I’ve got a lot of time for Arsenal. My mother’s side of the family are all North London Gooners who have at some point been to Filbert Street in the pissing rain one week and Wembley the next, except for a couple of rogue Spurs fans who are always assured of a shoeing at reunions. Arsene Wenger took over from Bruce Rioch not long after that Highbury victory (and to think we did it with Earl Barrett out injured too, incredible) and instilled an ethic in the club that set a benchmark for modern sides. Alright, it’s a bit stale now, and Wenger’s handicaps (being old, being French and giving up on strikers like an angry jilted woman will swear off men after a betrayal) are showing through more than ever. But this lot are sound. Who’d you rather won the league – the sh*te? Citeh? Big Jose’s Travelling Circus? That’s right. Up the Gunners.
One thing my mother tells more than anything about Arsenal is that in terms of fortune they’re the anti-Liverpool. While our neighbours are known to be the jammiest sods going, Arsenal have been haunted by the label of perennial f*ck-up merchants. A chance to go top of the league is more often than not squandered. Penalties are more likely to be missed than scored. Nayim. Obafemi Martins. Lehmann. Magic moments such as Alan Sunderland’s winner in the ’79 Cup final after almost gifting the trophy to Man Utd and Michael Thomas with (in my mind) the greatest moment in the history of the Football League to down the Kopites at last knockings are few and far between. Seriously, watch those moments. Hair-raising stuff.
So when Jack Wilshere was named in the England starting line-up, it was inevitable that the ever-innocent greasy tit Daniel Agger would go through him like a truck through a greenhouse. Not that Wilshere’s done anything useful recently, the wee Scrappy-Doo of a player. More worrying for Arsene Wenger is that Laurent Koscielny’s a doubt, while Aaron Ramsey and contender with Lacina Traore for the Botched Loan Deal of the Year award (sponsored by mutual scourge Philippe Senderos), Kim Kallstrom, are both out. Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski have taken a savage media beating in Germany this week, and Bayern Munich will prove a distraction as Arsene Wenger works out how to weasel his way out of another disappointing conclusion. Hardly halcyon days for this lot. Then again, third place and the chance of Wembley sounds like catnip to me.
So it’s Szczesny (did it without internet help, booyah), Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Cazorla, Ozil, Podolski, Giroud, right. Right? That’s the strongest side they could put out. That may in fact be harsh on Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The tricky youngster Gnabry would test the defence. Then there’s the likes of Sanogo and Bentdner, a man who couldn’t make his way past the likes of Henderson or Smalling on Wednesday. When you talk about testing a defence it’s hardly Pistorius-esque. But there’s enough class there to do damage if they turn up.
Enough about the opposition, on to dear old Everton. West Ham was a massive victory simply because it would’ve been 0-0 in September, guaranteed. The movement, Baines’ cross and Lukaku’s finish despite West Ham having ten men and one donkey covering the penalty area was not only classy but clinical. The latter’s a word I’d like to hear much more of from us. So if the boss Romelu who could teach Vladimir Putin a lesson in penetrating enemy lines turns up, that’d be grand.
As usual, Roberto Martinez is charming the socks off everyone in earshot. You’re right Bobby, John Stones will be sound on Saturday. Yep, Romelu Lukaku’s boss isn’t he. Tell us about quantitative easing or something, Roberto. He’s been telling Steven Pienaar to hit the penalty area, which Pienaar seems happy about, and there’s absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the FA Cup is huge. It really is.
Of course, like that 1-1 draw in December, we need to try and boss possession. A panicked Arsenal is a useless Arsenal, and their midfield injury worries could hand us a bit of an advantage. So is it Tim Howard or Joel Robles in goal? I have a sneaky suspicion it’ll be the Cup keeper, Robles. Imagine being able to play a back-up keeper in a Cup quarter final, eh. Sod off Mucha, Wessels and flippin’ Espen Baardsen. Seamus Coleman was, er, clearly saving himself for this weekend with an abysmal display for Ireland. Leighton Baines and Sylvain Distin got a rest, which is useful, while John Stones continues the ascent to England stalwart with an Under 21s clean sheet. Arsenal fans are a patronising bunch and have never paid much attention to other teams, so they reckon they’re in with the Jagielka out, Stones in news. Good luck with that.
In midfield sit Gareth Barry and James McCarthy. It’s great to see Mikel Arteta again, but would he displace these two right now? I don’t think so. Mirallas, Pienaar and Barkley should sit in front. I say “should” – we could see Deulofeu, and we could see Osman.
Ey, stop rolling those eyes. Yes, Leon Osman normally responds to being given space by giving opponents a throw-in, because he’s a right charitable scruff. He is as effective as David Cameron refusing to turn on Channel 4 for the Sochi Winter Paralympics. Or just David Cameron in general. But watching him just reinforces the idea that he’s useful under pressure. The close control and vision that comes with experience would make him a decent playmaker in this game until Barkley comes on to do damage. But just start Barkley, Roberto. Easier that way.
Romelu Lukaku needed a rest, and coming back from injury seems to have revitalised him a fair bit. With Steven Naismith continuing to throw a spanner in cynics’ wheels by playing pretty bloody well, the pressure’s not on him to put in consistent ninety minute efforts and score. He still has to turn up though. Seriously.
Would you believe this is only our fourth FA Cup meeting? The previous three were all won by the home side. But my dad was at Goodison when Imre Varadi sank the Gunners in 1981, and he recalls it with great joy. My mother less so. But this isn’t Family Fortunes. 5,800 will represent the watching Toffees worldwide by harassing the 58,000 home fans with, like, singing and general noise and stuff. Wembley’s at stake, Blues. And it’s more than likely that the dreams of returning there will stay with us right to the very end of this game.