The FA Cup Final

Thank you, Arsenal Football Club.

I write this having come off one of the worst weeks I've had to endure in quite a long time...mainly job-related stress, but anyway. For 120 agonizing minutes, it seemed like the misery would continue as the black-clad Dark Side of the Force attacked the Arsenal goal in waves, always seemingly inches away from driving the dagger into our hearts once again. But, there was a light at the end of the tunnel after all, and who knows? Maybe there's a light at the end of my tunnel, too. It sounds like lunacy to draw hope from a football match, but there you go. Anyway, the teams:

The FA Cup Champions: Jens Lehmann -- Ashley Cole, Philippe Senderos, Kolo Abib Toure, Lauren Bisan-Etane -- Robert Pires (Edu 105), Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira, Francesc Fabregas Soler (Fredrik Ljungberg 65) -- Jose Antonio Reyes (sent off 120), Dennis Bergkamp (Robin van Persie 86)

The Evil Sithlords: Roy Carroll -- John O'Shea (Quinton Fortune 77), Mikael Silvestre, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Darren Fletcher (Ryan Giggs 91) -- Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelroy

Right from the opening kickoff, this was a crackling, blood-and-thunder encounter. And, let's be honest...this was always going to be the first decent FA Cup Final for a few years (probably back to the Arsenal-Chelsea one), and one of the few good ones of the last 8-9 years or so. It's usually odd to have a final populated with the likes of Southampton or Millwall or even Newcastle (did anyone ever think they were going to win those games?). Oddly enough though, it was mostly clean in the early going. We all expected the stormtroopers in black to make a few "message" challenges early on, but that didn't quite materialize. Actually, that was probably a major reason why Arsenal's brightest spell of possession came in the first 15-20 minutes or so. Somewhere around there, the guys that looked like a team of referees stepped up a gear defensively, and Arsenal rarely saw the ball again, let alone a decent chance at goal.

We have to be honest with ourselves, there. United dominated the game, and were unbelievably effective at controlling the midfield. Their back four, though a bit makeshift with Wes Brown out of position on the right, put up quite a forcefield around their penalty area. It's no secret that we were missing Thierry Henry, of course. It isn't just his finishing or his runs that make him (and therefore make us) more dangerous. When he's on the field, he often draws two and even three defenders towards him when he makes a foray into the box. The resulting open space is the exact reason why we score so many goals off of tap-ins from slide-rule passes. It's really not rocket science when you think about it. Anyway, Dennis Bergkamp and Jose Antonio Reyes never really got going, and never really looked like they would cause United any significant problems in the back. Also, while you can't ask an 18-year old kid to take an FA Cup Final by the throat, Cesc Fabregas was essentially invisible out on the right flank. Sure, it's not his natural position, but he never put any pressure on John O'Shea (even when Ronaldo was all the way down the field after one of his bombing runs). That was the one thing I wish Arsene Wenger had done differently - line up Pires on the right, start Reyes on the left flank, and play van Persie up top to begin with. Pires wasn't exactly himself either, but I think you can trace that to Henry's absence. They have such a wonderful understanding and chemistry, Pires just has less to work with when someone else is out there.

For our esteemed opponents, Rooney and Ronaldo were brilliant. I wish I didn't have to say it, but they ran us completely ragged at times, and very often looked like scoring (or assisting in Ronaldo's case). Without them, there's no way they outshoot us 23-5. But, and this is the key point in the match, Arsenal's defense held firm and limited the damage that they might have otherwise caused. Yes, they had 23 shots at goal. I say "at" goal because many went wide or right at Lehmann due to some timely pressuring and closing down from our backline. Senderos in particular (outside of one glaring error that almost lost us the game) showed that he really was the heart of the defense today. Ashley Cole was brilliant in shadowing Rooney, but Senderos was even more vital in cleaning up many of United's most dangerous runs and chances. That said, all the credit in the world has to go to Jens Lehmann. He took a lot of shit from us supporters earlier in the season, and some of it was even warranted. But, United easily win this game if Lehmann wasn't on absolute top form. Yes, he flapped at a few crosses, but I'll take that when it comes with the wonderful reaction saves he made otherwise.

Seconds and minutes went on, fingernails were chewed off (literally, in my case), and nerves were unsettled. We can't keep holding out against this onslaught, surely? Well, it helped that van Nistelrooy wasn't the same player he's been in the last few years. Maybe it's the season ravaged by injury, maybe it's the fact that his one-dimensional play becomes more glaring as he gets older. I don't know. I'll take it, whatever it is, though.

Extra time, then, and I was almost numb at that point. Well, I alternated between that and not being able to watch at times. I had the match Tivoed because I didn't wake up until noon, so I even fast-forwarded past one or two of United's late free kicks...I just couldn't bear it. But, as the legs got tired and spaces started to open up, our back five stayed the course and heroically got us through the first half of extra time. After the restart, Arsenal got a ninth wind, it seemed. The pendulum started to swing the other way, and a we finally started to create a few half chances. Somewhere in here, Roy Carroll made a strong save off a van Persie free kick. I'll tell you what, though. Next year or the one after, those are going to go in all the time. ALL the time. As things wound to a close, Reyes got himself stupidly sent off, after Rob Styles had specifically warned him not to make another silly challenge (and had let him off the hook once in extra time!). Way to go, jackass. What if we had needed him to take a penalty, especially if it was tied after five? Despite his upswing in form at the end of the season, I still would LOVE to see Reyes go. He's a good player, but he's eminently replaceable.

By the way, since I'm on the subject, a word about Rob Styles. Whatever his reputation was before the match, he really showed me a lot today. He kept the match under control, he issued cautions at the right times and held off also at the right times. He correctly didn't give a penalty (once for each team) on accidental handballs in the area. Whoever the fuckstick was that was calling the game for Sky really needs the "intentional handling" chapter of the Laws of the Game tattooed across his fucking forehead backwards so that he can be reminded of it every morning when he looks in the mirror. Idiot. Actually, that reminds me. Did we really need two Manchester United cheerleaders in the commentary box AND two more in the studio? Fuck's sake, it was more than I could take at times. But, I digress. Getting back to my original point, Styles had a fantastic game, and I think he's elevated himself in my opinion to the class of referees that I think are the best in England: Graham Poll, Steven Bennett, and now Styles. I hope he gets more high-profile matches next season, as he's definitely earned it.

So, on to penalties. You know, even when they go our way, I consider this the worst way to end a contest in all of professional sports. I understand that the demands of the modern game (read as: television and PPV) make them somewhat of a necessity, but it's one that I liken to, say, going to work. Necessary but unfortunate. Anyway, Alex Ferguson seemed to toy with the idea of putting Tim Howard in goal for the shootout, and to be honest, I think he made a huge mistake by not doing so. Carroll didn't do much wrong in the shootout, and the Arsenal players took such high-quality penalties that it probably wouldn't have mattered. But, at the time, I almost surely would have done it if I were them (actually, I'd have had Howard starting in the first place, but that's neither here nor there). Howard is an amazing athlete, and I've seen him save penalties live and in person. But, as I said, our penalty takers were just off-the-charts good. Anyway, let's recreate the drama and go through them all...

- van Nistelrooy stepped up first, and I knew the bastard was going to score. Sure enough, he struck his penalty very well, and Lehmann guessed wrong anyway. 1-0 Evil

- Lauren, cooler than James Bond in a singles bar, places into the top corner. 1-1

- Scholes goes for power rather than location, which generally isn't the best of ideas. Lehmann guesses right, and actually ends up making a pretty easy save out of it. My neighbors wonder what all the yelling is about. 1-1

- Ljungberg utilizes the "cheeky, half-hit effort right down the middle" ploy. You know, that one works way more often than it should...not complaining, though. 2-1 Good

- Ronaldo starts, then stops, then starts again. Lehmann guesses wrong, but I thought that kind of run-up was illegal. 2-2

- Robin van Persie, you are my fucking idol. He hammers his shot into the top corner, and no keeper on earth is saving that one. 3-2 Good

- Rooney easily scores with a powerful effort. After diving to his right to save Scholes' shot, Lehmann dives the other way twice, and guesses wrong both times. Penalties really are a chess match in that sense. 3-3

- Ashley Cole finds room high to Roy Carroll's right, as the troll-man starts to dive the other way, then tries to come back, but ends up standing and watching it nestle into the net. 4-3 Good

- We win if Keane misses, but he simply side-foots it into the same corner that Lehmann had just dived at twice before. You have to give it to him...that was pretty cool under pressure. 4-4

- We win if Vieira scores, and fuck's sake did Carroll ever come close. Come to think of it, Howard would probably have saved this one if he guessed right. But, it found its way past Carroll and into to the net. My neighbors wonder what all the screaming is about. 5-4 Good

So, there you go. Good season, guys. We'll reconvene in a few months and do it all again...but, in the meantime, I'll still be around to update on the US National team, and maybe the Metrostars as well. There will definitely be a report of how we kicked England's ass in Chicago once I get back from my trip. Until then, take it easy, ladies and gents.


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