By Rob Kelly
“Of course it’s important. We want another cup run and we want, if possible, to keep the trophy. We’ve won it five times in my period in charge so that means we know the importance that it has.” - Arsene Wenger
The New Year may well be a time to look to the future, but perhaps in this instance we can be allowed some time to briefly reminisce. For this Sunday brings about the return of the FA Cup, and a re-run of last season’s unforgettably dramatic final between Arsenal and Hull City at Wembley.
It is a game that will live long in the memory, mainly for its assault on the emotions of everyone of an Arsenal persuasion. The day had started with a sense of cautious optimism, which seemed to almost organically develop into an unguarded, collective confidence as kick-off approached. Within nine minutes of the first whistle, however, most had descended into the depths of despair.
"When you know football you know that you have very little chance of winning. The fact that we were 2-0 down and turned it around was a fantastic relief"
Trailing by two goals and lucky not to be down by three, the Gunners somehow pulled themselves back from the brink, firstly through Santi Cazorla and then Laurent Koscielny. No Arsenal fan inside Wembley or watching around the world will ever forget Aaron Ramsey’s moment of extra-time catharsis, but perhaps one man felt it more than most.
Arsene Wenger had taken the brunt of a bruising nine-year wait for a trophy on the chin, eloquently expressing his confidence that success was in sight. Finally, on May 17, 2014 it arrived - and the relief was almost overwhelming for this most passionate of managers.
“It was unbelievable,” Wenger said. “We had to knock out Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham [en route to the final]. Then you arrive in the final and you go 2-0 down after 10 minutes. You can’t believe it. When you know football you know you have very little chance of winning. The fact we were 2-0 down and turned it around was a fantastic relief.”
But the past is the past. Wenger has always been a forward-thinking manager and a brief foray into recent history is all he will allow. He gave a wry smile when this year’s third-round draw was made, but the task in hand is to now defend the trophy - and that starts on Sunday.
The Gunners come into the game on the back of a mixed festive period, which had started so positively with victories against QPR and West Ham before a disappointing New Year’s Day defeat to Southampton.
The demands of a punishing schedule could be seen at St Mary’s as, with both Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini out injured, the manager fielded the inexperienced pairing of Calum Chambers and Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Arteta (calf), Ramsey (hamstring), Flamini (groin - doubt), Ozil (knee - doubt), Welbeck (thigh - doubt), Giroud (suspended), Sanogo (hamstring - doubt)
Hull City: Rosenior (hamstring), Robertson (ankle), Dawson (hamstring), Diame (knee), Snodgrass (knee)
Wenger is expected to rotate his squad for Sunday’s game but, with injuries having taken their toll, he will make a late decision over a number of players.
“Honestly I have to check who is available and who is not,” he said. “The two keepers, Ospina and Martinez, will come in. After that, we will see. I cannot rotate too much either because we need stability. Who comes back? We have the 18 players [that played against Southampton] - nobody else will play.
“At least we play at home after the Christmas period. That’s not bad, because you play on December 26, 28 and on New Year’s Day. At the moment, we have a decimated squad, so that means everybody will have to contribute very well and a lot. The fact that you play at home can be an advantage.”
It has been a difficult campaign for Hull City so far.
Despite an impressive summer transfer window that saw the additions of proven performers like Mohamed Diame, Hatem Ben Arfa and Abel Hernandez, they have - like so many sides in the Premier League - failed to find a level of consistency and currently lie 15th in the table.
"Our experience from the cup final keeps us on our toes and we know that we have to be very focused to get out of this game"
One of their most impressive performances of the season came in October’s 2-2 draw at Emirates Stadium, when Arsenal needed a last-gasp Danny Welbeck goal to rescue a point. That was enough to convince Wenger of Hull's quality, and he expects a searching examination on Sunday.
“Hull are a team that are always very dangerous against everybody,” he said. “They have had a bad run but they can still go away and win games, so you are cautious.
“Our experience from the cup final keeps us on our toes and we know that we have to be very focused to get out of this game. Sometimes it’s maybe better you play a Premier League team, because you know the quality of your opponent and if you do not have a great performance, you don’t get through.”
The third round of the FA Cup remains one of the most iconic dates in the English football calendar, and for Arsenal it will be especially important as they set about defending their title.
Seven months ago, the Gunners finally ended their long wait for silverware on a glorious evening that many predicted would spark further success. This season has been challenging, but the chance to kick off the defence of the FA Cup is a welcome distraction from the Premier League programme.
The fact that the Gunners start against last season’s vanquished finalists may have caused smiles in the dressing room, but Wenger is wary of allowing the past to have any influence on the present. His side, he says, will only be able to continue their FA Cup adventure if they deliver the requisite display on Sunday.
“Last season’s final is a great memory but we have a big job to do [against Hull],” he said. “[We also want to] come back in the Premier League, then we have the Champions League. What is for sure is that we have room for improvement and we have to manage to do that quickly.
“Of course it is important. We want another cup run and we want, if possible, to keep the trophy. We’ve won it five times in my period [in charge] so that means we know the importance that it has.
“The biggest thing in the third round of the cup is that you play to get in there, to get on the train and stay on the train. That’s sometimes the most difficult thing.
“There is a little pressure [as holders], but there is also a motivation not to lose the cup that is in your home. You want to keep it where it is, and that’s a good incitement as well.”
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.