There remains a sense of great expectations surrounding Leeds United. To get a feel for the root cause for this, we only need to spin back four decades, when Don Revie’s team lost out on the Football League Championship to Derby County but managed a little solace in winning the FA Cup final against Arsenal at Wembley. Times have changed since then, of course. In the intervening forty years, Leeds United have been relegated, bounced back, won the last English title before the induction of the Premier League, plummeted back to the third tier of the English league system and only narrowly avoided closure before resurfacing in the Championship, their ambition thwarted, yet undiminished.
Perhaps it is this sense of grandeur which, in recent years, seen the club over-perform against superior opposition. Two years ago, they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and gave Spurs a game and a half before succumbing after a replay. This time last year, they faced a trip to The Emirates Stadium to play Arsenal and again managed a draw before slipping up at home in a replay. Whatever limitations the Leeds United teams of the last couple of seasons may have had, they always seem capable of giving those bigger clubs a game in a one-off cup match. If psychology counts for great deal in football, then it could even be argued that, while those past glories can act like an albatross around its neck in the bread and butter business of league football, such considerations give Leeds United a little more swagger than their current Championship contemporaries can muster for a big occasion.
For Arsenal, meanwhile, the clock continues to tick. By the end of this season, it will be seven years since the club last won a major trophy, and in these days of sky-high ticket prices (and Arsenal remain positively stratospheric in this respect) and the lust for instant gratification, that feels like too long. Already out of the League Cup, and with the Champions League looking increasingly like a pipe dream, the FA Cup may least scratch an itch for this season at least. On top of that, expectation levels at Arsenal may have been increased by the return of Thierry Henry, who starts this evening as a substitute. Whether Henry can get back to being anything like the virtuoso that he was during his previous stay with the club is a question that may begin to be answered tonight.
It is another player with something to prove, Andrei Arshavin, who dominates the first ten minutes or so, and not necessarily for the reasons that he would prefer. He races into this match like a bull in a china shop, seemingly intent on shooting every time the ball comes into view, but he is out of form and his early efforts are wayward. Other than this – and a Squillaci header that corkscrews wide when he should have scored – it is a curiously understated opening to the match. There are a few empty seats, but The Emirates Stadium is mostly full. After a vociferous opening five minutes or so – and this seems to die away a little as Arsenal take control of the game – the atmosphere falls flatter than usual, and this is reflected in events on the pitch, where the home side stroke the ball around with comfort and ease. For all of this, the opening forty-five minutes floats past as if a dream. Arsenal look close to impotent, Leeds are pinned back but seldom seem in serious danger.
Seventeen minutes into the second half, Arsenal manage a shot on target – a smart one two and a low shot from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that is beaten away by the Leeds goalkeeper Lonergan. It’s as much entertainment as we see in the first twenty minutes of the second half. The crowd does manage to lift itself midway through the half with the introduction of Thierry Henry, but this is largely to take a million photographs of him. It would be unfair to make the assumption that Henry’s introduction should instantly change the fortunes of Arsenal, but after ten minutes, the moment comes.
It’s a goal that is Arsenal at their brilliant, simple best. Alex Song’s diagonal pass is inch-perfect, and Henry peels away from his marker with consummate ease and grace and rolls the ball across Lonergan. It’s a goal that reeks of all the accumulated knowledge of almost eighteen years as a professional player, and it is enough to win the match for Arsenal. Leeds United may have over-achieved away to some of the Premier League’s best over the last couple of years, but they have been insipid this evening. A run of one win in five matches perhaps tells us as much as we need to know about their recent form, but they seemed unable this evening to raise their game in the way that they did in the last couple of seasons at this stage of the competition.
Tomorrow morning’s newspaper headlines will be written for Thierry Henry, though. True enough, it was a sole goal scored in a Third Round FA Cup match against a spluttering side from a division below them, but this was the story that Arsenal supporters – and, it rather feels, much of the football press – had wanted this evening, and it livened up an otherwise tepid evening at The Emirates Stadium. Perhaps he will get Arsenal back into the Champions League places by the end of the season. Perhaps he won’t. For now, he has shot Arsenal into the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, and for Arsenal supporters that must feel like manna from heaven for this evening, at least.
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