Despite the overwhelming temptation to sit and write thousands of words about the fact that Ashley Cole shot a fellow human being it would be remiss and indeed unprofessional not to discuss the Carling Cup Final. And professionalism and consistency is the backbone of this blog as much as rumour, distain and gossip.
Sitting at home and watching the eruption of joy and elation from the Birmingham fans and players, along with the scenes of crushed and broken Arsenal players will stay with me for a long time and showed just how much this final meant to both sides. Birmingham deserved their victory as they should have had a penalty and man advantage within the first two minutes when Szczesny brought down Lee Bowyer. The Blues played superbly and their passing at times bettered that of Arsenal. Both sides had glorious chances to score a second. Overall it was one of the most pulsating and enthralling domestic finals in a long time. Coupled with the brilliance of the Manchester derby semi-final last year, the Carling Cup is staking a serious claim to offer better entertainment than the FA Cup.
The fallout from the defeat for Arsenal will be interesting though. They are still in the FA Cup, have a lead to take to the Camp Nou and, despite being four points behind in the title race, have a much easier run-in than Manchester United. One defeat should not colour what is still potentially a very good season for Wenger’s side. The Carling Cup was never going to be the trophy that persuaded Fabregas and others to stay in London, assuming he could be persuaded at all. If Arsenal win the Premier League then the failure yesterday will be forgotten in an instant.
Nevertheless, the argument goes that success breeds success and winning that first trophy would have lifted that six-year-old monkey off the teams back. As Jacob Steinburg pointed out yesterday in the Guardian’s minute-by-minute commentary, it was the Carling Cup win in 2006 which kicked off three league titles and a Champions League for Manchester United. Winning against Birmingham yesterday might not have given Arsenal the confidence to go on and win the league, but losing certainly will have niggled away at the self-doubt in all of them. Like the draw against Newcastle after being 4-0 up, the questions will hang over the team for the next few weeks.
Solid wins at home to Leyton Orient and Sunderland will do no harm but after losing to Birmingham the match in Spain takes on a whole new significance. An entire season can sometimes spin on a single result and it is hard to see one more crucial to Wenger’s boys than the second leg in Barcelona. Should they lose 1-0 and go out on away goals, then damage will be minimal. The fear must be that Barcelona will put on the same sort of show that they did last year. Likely to be without Theo Walcott, Fabregas and Vermaelen this game is taking on a sickening significance for Gunners fans.
The timing of the Carling Cup final was perfect for Arsenal, just before the season enters the final stretch where games come thick and fast. They are up against a Manchester United side that has bags of experience about winning titles and can grind out results. But it is not a vintage Ferguson team by any means. Arsenal are easily good enough to win this title. They may be four points behind but it is as much theirs to lose as it is United’s. But the smart money knows who is more likely to break under the pressure.