FA Cup 5th Round Replay: Sheffield United 0 – Arsenal 0 (2-4)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
March 2nd, 2005 • 12:55 am

Finally something to cheer about for Arsenal fans… including — gasp! — goal keeping exploits by Manuel Almunia.

It was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. But considering how depleted the Arsenal side currently is, it was a surprisingly good performance. Sheffield United fans must have thought that they could not have asked for a better opportunity to advance at the expense of the Gunners. The majority of Arsenal’s striking force was missing through injury or suspension, and the defensive frailty of the Cygan/Senderos pairing has been rather evident in recent games.

There were lots of very young Arsenal players on the pitch, including Lupoli (17), Fabregas (17), Flamini (20), Senderos (20), etc.

But in truth the only player who showed his age (and inexperience) was Lupoli, who wasn’t able to participate in any way. He was replaced by Quincy Owusu-Abeyie at half-time, who, apart from his tongue-twisting name, looks like he’s going to have a very bright future at Arsenal indeed. He was very impressive in the second half, as were a number of other young Gunners.

Apart from a couple of opportunities at the beginning of each half, Sheffield United had absolutely nothing to offer except for a stern defense. The only reason that they had a few chances in the game, including the header that was quite impressively saved by Almunia late in the second half, was that the Arsenal defense was yet again shaky and disorganized at times.

Arsenal, on the other hand, exerted long spells of sustained pressure and were rather unfortunate not to find the back of the net. Fabregas hit the cross bar with a magnificent shot, and Kenny made a number of vital saves for his team.

So it went into extra time and finally penalty kicks. There were reasons for concern, given the lack of goal keeping prowess for Arsenal this season, and the fact that the Sheffield United goal keeper had been so impressive in the previous round and again here during the game.

But in the end it was all about Almunia, who had three great saves. I count the first one, because, even though it was disallowed by the referee and the Sheffield United player was allowed to retake his penalty kick, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. And, to his great credit, Almunia quickly recovered from that disappointment and produced two other great saves to deny Sheffield United a place in the quarter finals.

Combined with his good save during the game, it was a man-of-the-match performance by Almunia, and he fully deserved the congratulations of his team mates. Cynics will note that these celebrations were not exactly proportionate to Arsenal’s real ambitions this season. It was, after all, only a FA Cup 5th round replay against a team from a lower league. Not exactly a world-class performance.

But you have to give credit to all these young players and give them a chance to experience success. I thought they did quite well last night, all things considered — whereas regular players like Vieira and Ljungberg produced average performances at best.

I don’t expect this game to be a turning point in this lousy season, but it’s good nonetheless to have something to cheer about — even if it’s mostly about the future and the potential of the next generation of players.

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