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Escape at The Emirates

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LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal tackles Daniel Sturidge of Liverpool during the match between Arsenal and Liverpool in the 5th Round of the FA Cup at Emirates Stadium on February 16, 2014 in London, England. Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images.
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal tackles Daniel Sturidge of Liverpool during the match between Arsenal and Liverpool in the 5th Round of the FA Cup at Emirates Stadium on February 16, 2014 in London, England. Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images.

Arsenal escaped their fifth round clash with Liverpool to move on to the quarter finals of the FA Cup.

Arsene Wenger’s team sheet was drawn up with one eye clearly focused on Wednesday’s encounter with Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League, and the consequences of the team changes nearly saw Arsenal’s most legitimate chance at silverware this season slip through their fingers just minutes after Howard Webb blew his opening whistle.

Wenger choose to start Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal as the outside defensive backs and both were exposed from the word go. 

If Daniel Sturridge had been born with a right foot that was half as cultured as his left, Arsenal could have easily been two goals down within the first five minutes.  The ease at which he got in behind the Gunners back four has to be alarming for assistant coach Steve Bould and the entire Arsenal staff.

Bayern will not squander chances as Liverpool did during their opening salvo. 

The more I see of Jenkinson the clearer it becomes that he is not the long-term solution at right back.  Raheem Sterling caught him flat footed and out of position on numerous occasions.  Admittedly, marking the speedy youngster is no easy task; but there is a noticeable drop off in quality, from Bacary Sagna to Jenkinson, that must have Wenger sweating the lack of a new deal for Sagna. 

I find it fitting that Arsenal will play host to Everton in the quarter finals where Gunners’ fans will likely have another opportunity to watch Seamus Coleman in action – the ideal player for Wenger to sign this summer to replace Sagna.

I said in my pre-match report that I thought Kieran Gibbs would have been a better selection than Monreal.  Monreal nearly proved me right as Sturridge tormented the Spanish left back at will in the opening exchanges.  To his credit he settled down afterward but I still prefer Gibbs – especially against a team with the speed Liverpool possess.

Laurent Koscielny was superb yesterday.  His athleticism, never-say-die approach to defending, and overall effort was exemplary.  He did as good a job as anyone can against Luis Suarez.  

Laurent Koscielny – apart from Vicent Kompany – has proven himself to be the best center back in the Barclay’s Premier League.

Per Mertesacker deserves enormous credit for his positional play that allows him to intercept passes so well, and when he launches into a sliding tackle there are very few that can escape that big German’s leg.                

I must admit that I was surprised to see Lukasz Fabianski starting.  I was surprised and impressed.  Last night it was confirmed that there are two very good Polish keepers at the Emirates.  Fabianski produced six fine saves in the match and his solid play for the full 90 will best be remembered for the way he was able to thwart Sturridge one-on-one and help ensure Arsenal advanced into the next round.  

The fact of the matter is that Arsenal’s keeper and back four did enough to escape with the win.  They performed admirably against the Premier League’s two leading scorers in Suarez and Sturridge; and maybe escaping without those two scoring is something many a team will hope for the rest of the way.  

Talking Points:

Talk of Arsenal escaping with a win has centered on the penalty that was not awarded to Suarez after Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain clattered into him.  The Liverpool fans in the stadium shouted penalty, and the Arsenal’s fans on my couch leapt to their feet with cries of ‘what are you doing, Ox?’  Both sets of supporters exhaled in short gasps as referee Howard Webb wiggled has finger back and forth to say 'No, no, no.' 

Dutch football legend Rinus Michels said, “Every match contains moments, which have a positive influence on the performance of one coach’s team and a negative influence on the team of the other coach.” This moment happened yesterday due to reputation and dramatization.

Was it a pen?  Yes.

Did Suarez do a flailing sniper-felled-death-rattle-convulsion to try and convince Webb?  Yes.

I don’t think the referee appreciated that and Suarez's past reputation of 'looking for it’ came back to haunt Liverpool.

Mathieu Flamini’s Yellow

Maybe not a big moment for some but when Flamini was carded in the first half for a challenge on Steven Gerrard I worried that it would shift the balance of the match.  I thought Flamini’s momentum had taken him into the Liverpool captain and that Webb's decision was a bit harsh.  As I predicted in my last article, Flamini’s impact on the midfield battle was immense. 

His effort and enthusiasm to get stuck in had a marked impact on the match; Webb carding him could have changed it all for Arsenal.  Flamini was less impactful in the second half as he was carrying the yellow and it induced Liverpool’s flurry of chances; credit Flamini for having the discipline to get through the second half without seeing red.

Webb’s Leniency & Sterling’s Five Point Exploding Heart Punch

Who am I to call or a player to be sent off – an Arsenal fan that’s who.  Brendan Rodgers and Co. are rife with anger that Webb did not give a penalty for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s challenge on Suarez but Arsenal fans have their own axe to grind as Webb should have sent off Steven Gerrard. 

The Liverpool captain was lucky to escape a booking in the first half after he chopped down Lukas Podolski and when he was burned by Oxlade-Chamberlain, for a second time in the match, and had to take him down it was clearly a bookable offense and Webb’s leniency was undeserved.

Raheem Sterling is also lucky to have escaped punishment for his 'Kill Bill' style finger jab at Webb’s chest.  Webb’s incredulity at the diminutive Sterling’s physical affront has been called lenient, contemplative, and balanced refereeing.

Bull.  Webb should have had set an example for his fellow officials by showing Sterling yellow for his attempted 'Five Point Exploding Heart Punch.'

Wenger use your Ox:

Ever since Arsenal’s win at Crystal Palace, I have been calling for Wenger to entrust Oxlade-Chamberlain with the belief and confidence to dictate a match by playing him through the center of the park (as he did so well verse Palace).  Wenger has chosen, shockingly, to ignore my recommendation and has used Ox sparingly.  

On Sunday, Oxlade-Chamberlain put in the incredible man-of-the-match performance that this writer has been predicting was at hand if the player was given the chance.  

Wenger played him in a wide role again but he still bossed the game. 

He was sensational as he ran at defenders, drew fouls and cards on opposing defenders, scored the opening goal, and created the second.

If Wenger can't recognize the Ox is the player of the moment, than Arsenal have real problems.

Final Thoughts:

Olly, Olly, Oxen Free.  Arsenal must play through the Ox.  Wenger has been building him up for three years and it's time for him to be a celebrated squad member that Arsenal play through.

Yaya Sonogo's first start was a bit underwhelming for me.  I wasn't overly impressed (several complete whiffs at the ball didn't help), but perhaps there's something Paulo Wanchope-esque to those long strides and there are good things to come. Let's hope. At least we didn't have to see Nicholas Bendtner.

Mesut Özil played one pass that changed the game.  It was a through ball to Ox that was brilliantly weighted and perfectly measured.  Özil has played better the last two matches and only a fine save from the Liverpool keeper denied him from getting a big goal.

Ah, Jack Wilshere, he did not play a minute and Arsenal won.  I have been calling for 'JW10's' drop for several games due to poor performances and look at how much better balanced the team looked.  I'm a Wilshere fan, don't get me wrong, but he hasn't been playing well as the holding midfielder during Flamini's absence.

Serge Gnabry didn't play as I had hoped. Instead, it was Podolski - who did what Poldi does - he got a goal. And as I said before the match, I had no problems with him getting the start.  He's becoming the go-to for FA Cup goals.

Arsenal escaped Liverpool's high-flying attack and move on to host Everton.

Now just that pesky Bayern Munich on Wednesday to think about...