A knockdown, drag-out encounter...

Arsenal 1-1 Sheffield United

Robert Pires (78)
Andy Gray (pen 90)

A bit controversial this one, eh? But, before I get to all that, I have to say...this was an absolutely cracking match. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this was the most fun I've had watching in quite a while...I only wish I had gotten up early enough to make the trip to the pub. As a matter of fact, I hope Sheffield United get promoted...this matchup needs to happen in the league next season. We've got a wonderfully bitter feud developing, I'd say, especially given recent FA Cup history. Anyway, the lineups:

The Gunners: Manuel Almunia -- Gael Clichy, Philippe Senderos, Kolo Abib Toure, Emmanuel Eboue -- Jose Antonio Reyes (Pascal Cygan 86), Francesc Fabregas Soler, Mathieu Flamini, Fredrik Ljungberg -- Robin van Persie (Robert Pires 65), Dennis Bergkamp (sent off 35). Subs not used: Stuart Taylor (GK), Sebastian Larsson, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.

The Blades: Paddy Kenny -- Jon Harley, Danny Cullip, Leigh Bromby, Derek Geary -- Michael Tonge, Nick Montgomery (Jonathan Forte 82), Paul Thirlwell (Paul Shaw 45), Phil Jagielka, Andy Liddell (Simon Francis 82) -- Andy Gray. Subs not used: Alan Quinn, Danny Cadamarteri.

Well, let's get the obvious of of the way first...Neale Barry is probably the only referee in the league to rival Mike Riley in absolute incompetence and sheer cuntiness. Seriously, how does he get so many decisions wrong? Dennis gets sent off for wagging his finger at Cullip, he looks the other way at 2 legitimate shouts for a penalty (although to be fair, we were disgraceful with our constant diving all over the pitch, including more than once in the penalty area), and in the interest of fairness, the Sheffield United goal was a little harshly called back as well (although Almunia stopped on the whistle...had play continued, he certainly could have saved it). Barry was the one who let the tie get out of hand in the first place, as he let several absolutely shocking challenges from United go before things boiled over on the half hour or so. Even still, it was fucking handbags, and to send off someone for a non-contact violation (it was a violation, and it was worthy of a yellow card...not the red that jerkoff showed). That said, United probably did deserve something out of this game based on how well they played, but it's a shame that the referee ended up handing the draw to them (If Dennis is on the field for the whole game, we win it 3-1...not a doubt in my mind).

So yes, the actual match. United started off especially brightly, and actually created a half-chance right in the first minute. They really are no mugs, and they might have a better chance of surviving the Premiership than Norwich or WBA have this time around. I came away from this mightily impressed with several of their players -- first and foremost their goalkeeper, Paddy Kenny. He may look like a misshapen outcast from the lab that produced bald, shambling automatons like Cygan, but goddamn if he doesn't have all the tools to be a top class keeper in England. He's only 26, his shot-stopping is excellent, his positioning and angles flawless, and he gets up real well for high balls. If this guy isn't playing in the Premiership next season, I'll be surprised. I don't know if he has the quality to dislodge a Niemi or a Friedel or a Given, but I think he's far better than, say, Russell Hoult. Hell, he may not be too far removed from the two guys we've used this season. Actually, the guy he reminds me of is Dean Kiely. Along with him, I came away from this also impressed by Geary, Tonge, Cullip and Jagielka. I don't think they'd be everyday starters in the EPL, but how many teams would complain about having cover like that on their benches? Certainly, I could see any of them doing well for a team like Charlton. The thing is, they are so effective because of the style their team plays...and, whether we like him or not, because Neil Warnock is a pretty damn good manager. This Sheffield team has a bit of skill, but what they really have is a ton of spirit, an indomintable belief, and a sort of fighting determination that will always keep them in almost any match they play.

As for us, injuries and players rested for the big tie on Tuesday meant that we had a pretty thin squad, relatively...far younger overall then we're used to, certainly. Almunia, to his credit, rebounded from losing the first-choice keeper slot and had himself a pretty good game. As a matter of fact, Sheffield might have won this thing if Almunia hadn't kept out Gray's open header early on in the first half. To the untrained eye, it looked like he spilled another one. But, what really happened was that his positioning allowed him to be in front of the ball, and he did extremely well to paw the rebound away from danger. The stand-ins among the field players had pretty good games as well. The two wingbacks, Clichy and Eboue, were more than able deputies for the injured Cole and the rested Lauren. The central midfield pairing of Flamini and Fabregas (combined age: 12, maybe 13) were combative and spirited and passed the ball well. Senderos was OK in central defense, while Robin van Persie hasn't really broken out yet, and wasn't ever really a threat today.

Right from the opening whistle, United showed their intent with a hard foul on Reyes. That was the tone right from the beginning, and it predictably escalated as the game wore on. As mentioned, Barry did nothing to quell the rough stuff, and then was ridiculously harsh in sending off Bergkamp. It's too bad, because it ruined the game a little. Having 11 on 11 would have turned in already cracking match into something even better, I believe. Of course, a referee should never not send someone off if the player has committed an actual red-card infraction, but there weren't any of those in this match (scrappy as it was). United had been putting up an able fight anyway, and the red card gave them that extra little bit of drive. To be frank, I'm kind of surprised that they didn't score in the first half. They created several chances, including more than one free header in the penalty area. It's probably lucky for us that Liddell didn't get a chance to take any dangerous free kicks, or else we might be in West Ham's position right now. They did have more corner kicks in the match then us though, and they nearly scored from several of them. In fact, they're just generally good at set pieces. They're dangerous on the attack, and they defend them excellently as well. However, that didn't stop Kolo Toure from almost getting his first Highbury goal off a close free kick...his swerving effort had the corner of the net written all over it, but Kenny did amazingly well to not only get in front of it, but to catch it as well.

Halftime then, and no goals. Again, kind of surprising, but you have to be happy with that if you're Arsenal. After the break, they began to counter-attack with more precision and more verve than they had been previously. The first few minutes after getting a guy sent off are always vulnerable ones, as the guys on the pitch have to rearrange themselves with only the very little assistance you can get from the manager screaming on the sideline. Once they were past that, they settled in and started to bomb down the flanks as usual. Whether it was Clichy and Eboue or Reyes and Ljungberg, the Arsenal had far better going down the wings than they did in the middle. But, that's not to say that Flamini and Fabregas didn't pitch in as well. Actually, for my money, Fabregas was Man of the Match if Ljungberg wasn't. Speaking of Freddie, he was given the captain's armband after Dennis got sent off, and he fit the role especially well. I made it a point to watch him off the ball throughout the match, and you could see him marshalling the midfield and keeping Arsenal organized. Just an immense, immense effort from the Swede.

Now that I mention immense efforts, I have to say that BBC handles their coverage fantastically well. The camerawork shown by their people is perhaps the best I've seen in any sporting event. The close-in shots and the goalie cams and all of the rest of it are just superb, and it really enchances the enjoyment of the match for the viewer. I don't know who does the coverage for the EPL games that Fox Soccer Channel shows, but it's nowhere near as good as BBC's. If BBC did all the games, I might be more interested in that mid-January borefest between, say, Birmingham and Bolton. Also adding to the enjoyment of the game was the raucous atmosphere in the stands. The Sheffield supporters were in fine voice throughout the game, and the notoriously-quiet Highbury crowd livened up quickly once Bergkamp was sent off.

Around the hour mark, it became apparent that Arsenal needed a change in order to truly get going. Enter the super-sub, Robert Pires. Once the Frenchman came on, Arsenal arguably dominated the rest of the match offensively. Although that left us with no real striker, that doesn't matter so much with this Arsenal team. Pires, Reyes and Ljungberg all can score, and I don't think the day is too far off when Flamini and Fabregas start scoring as well. Sure enough, ten minutes later, the Gunners finally breached the Paddy Kenny forcefield to take the lead. Some great passing by the Arsenal midfield sent Flamini in with his back to goal. He beat his man with an exquisite spin around him, and then lashed a low shot at goal. Kenny did well to get a palm on it, and he almost had the rebound, too. But, Pires had just enough on his follow-up to get it in off the hand of Kenny. Surely not a goal for the highlight reels, but no Gooner in existence would have given it back, that's for sure. Even with a man down, it seemed that Arsenal were likely winners at that point. But, give Warnock credit where it's due...he made changes that paid off as well (although the one he made at halftime, Shaw for Thirlwell, might not have been so good. I actually didn't know Shaw played until I was getting the lineups from Soccernet). Forte and Francis seem like pretty good young players, and their speed and fresh legs helped Sheffield create some more in the offensive end. However, it was Cullip who created the Sheffield equalizer at the death. It was his ball that Senderos handled in the area, a penalty that I actually didn't have a problem with. It didn't seem 100% intentional, but you can't put your arms up when trying to head away a cross like that. Anyway, Gray converted the penalty easily, and now we have a replay on 3/1. I actually can't wait...that will make the average WWE cage match seem tame in comparison.

But, there's far more important things on the horizon first (and I say that despite the fact that I truly, truly love this competition). Munich on Tuesday is going to be a battle, and we will have to show the same spirit that Sheffield did against us in order to not let the tie get away from us. We'll again be without Cole and Campbell, and who knows how bad Henry's condition really is? It looked like Bayern might be headed for a dip in form after an awful 3-1 loss to Arminia Bielefeld, but they just hammered Dortmund 5-0 tonight, with a hat trick from Roy Makaay. So, it should be interesting, at the very least. As long as we keep it close (and especially if we can nick an away goal), I think we can put them away at Highbury. Here's hoping, anyway.

I'll close this time with the joyful news that my second-favorite team, Brentford, is still alive in the FA Cup as well. They came back from 2-0 down against Southampton to get a draw at St. Mary's, earning the replay at Griffin Park. I'll be rooting like hell for them, as it would also give the added bonus of one less EPL team alive in the competition. So far, the hat for thw quarterfinal draw is: Us/Sheffield United, Brentford/Southampton, The Red Scum of Manchester, Leicester City (who dumped out Charlton 2-1), Bolton, and tomorrow's Blackburn Rovers/Burnley, White Scum of London/Nottingham Forest, Newcastle/Blue Scum of London. Barring any further upsets, the final 8 would be us, Red Scum, Blue Scum, White Scum, Blackburn, Bolton, Southampton, Leicester. Personally, my greatest wish would be to knock out the White Scum in the quarters, the Red Scum in the semis, and then the Blue Scum in the final. If we were granted that, then I don't care if Bayern beats us by 10 goals. Really.


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