The League Cup final is looming. Well, perhaps looming isn’t the right word. For Arsenal fans, at least, it is lurking. The Gunners hold a 2-1 lead after the first leg of their Champions League second round tie against Barcelona; they are still in contention for the Premier League title; they will progress to the FA Cup quarter final if they can beat Leyton Orient at the second time of asking. Sunday afternoon’s clash against Birmingham City offers Arsenal their most immediate hope of bringing silverware to the Emirates this season – yet, as we enter the business end of the season, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
With a squad that can rival any in the world, Arsenal fans have reason to expect their side to stake a claim for any trophy on offer. The Earth has orbited the Sun almost six times since the Gunners last won a title – meaning they’re yet to make any additions to their trophy room since relocating to the Emirates in 2006. There is a widespread perception that a cup – any cup – would sate the appetite of the Arsenal fans.
I would beg to differ. No two ways about it – the League Cup is Arsenal’s fourth priority, and the fans know it. And Arsène Wenger, the club’s longest-serving and most successful manager, knows it too. In fact, just 12 months ago, he uttered the words: “If you win the League Cup, can you honestly say you have won a trophy?” His attitude might have outwardly changed this season, but let’s not overstate it.
Entering this year’s competition in the third round, Arsenal were drawn against local rivals Tottenham. It would have been a political disaster – in the tabloids, at least – for Wenger to have taken the game flippantly. A reasonably-strong squad (compared to previous campaigns) eventually overcame Spurs in extra-time, before making light work of feeble Newcastle and Wigan sides in the following rounds. A semi-final tie against Ipswich proved more problematic – newly-appointed manager Paul Jewell watched from the stands as the Trotters beat Arsenal at Portman Road, but the gulf in class became evident as the Gunners eventually prospered in the return leg. “And that’ll be Arsenal in the final of the Carling Cup!” declared the stadium announcer, to the polite applause of those that hadn’t left early to beat the traffic.
Now, at the end of February, the many facets of Arsenal’s season hang in the balance. They face the thankless task of chasing Manchester United in the league, and an FA Cup trip to Old Trafford also awaits (assuming they beat Orient in the fifth round replay, which has further congested their schedule). Beating Barcelona in North London has only served to rile the Catalans, who will pursue vengeance at the Camp Nou. Simply, there is no let-up on any front. They should have expected this sudden crescendo – after all, arsenal.com have optimistically listed provisional dates for all the rounds of all the knock-out competitions on their website. (Villa fans, don’t book your train tickets yet: the Gunners might yet be preoccupied on May 14th with an FA Cup final.)
So how does this improve Birmingham’s chance of winning only the second major title in their history? Well, truth be known, it doesn’t. Blues have churned out some memorable league draws against the Gunners in recent years, but their only win against Arsenal in almost three decades came in an end-of-season dead-rubber in 2005, when Emile Heskey capitalised on Phillipe Senderos’ decision to take his summer vacation a few minutes early.
The strength and depth of the Gunners’ maturing squad is technically superior in every department. Even Arsenal’s long-standing goalkeeping issues have been overcome with the emergence of the brilliant Wojciech Szczęśny, who had begun the season as third-choice. Colin Tattum at the Birmingham Mail asked Alex McLeish where Blues could hurt Arsenal – after a pause, and with a tentative expression, the Scot offered: “Well… we’ve been strong in set pieces.”
It’s true. Birmingham’s hopes are slim, even if Arsenal have so many other irons in the fire. Most major betting websites are offering odds as long as 13/2 for Blues to lift the cup, but many neutrals won’t even consider it a worthwhile punt. All the pre-match attention will be directed at Arsenal’s coming-of-age squad and their chance to end the trophy-famine, which has apparently lingered over the club for an eternity. But for a team like Birmingham – whose expectations are a 17th-place league finish – cup runs are a rare moment to savour, rather than an unwelcome burden.
It’s only a Bluenose of a particular vintage that will remember the 1963 League Cup victory over Aston Villa. Played over two legs, a goalless draw at Villa Park was enough for City to win the trophy in B6, after the 3-1 victory at St Andrew’s four days before.
Minor triumphs have followed – Bluenoses were treated to a trip to Wembley for the Leyland DAF Trophy win over Tranmere in 1991, and many will fondly remember the famous double-winning season of 1994/5 (Division 2 and the Auto Windscreens Shield). Birmingham were denied a Worthington Cup win in a shoot-out against Liverpool in Cardiff in 2001 – a decade later, it’s not just the ABV that’s more intoxicating about this year’s Carling Cup final.
This year’s cup run has been a rollercoaster ride, and one which few expected to end under the Wembley Arch. Rochdale and MK Dons were dealt with in the early ties but a wobble against Brentford in the fourth round required a composed last-minute equaliser by Kevin Phillips to take the game to penalties. The quarter-final clash with Villa saw Blues prevail in a tempestuous affair, and it took an unlikely come-back to see off West Ham in extra-time in the semi-final. Passage to Wembley couldn’t have been secured in a more appropriate way: a 20-yard strike in front of the Tilton Road by local-boy Craig Gardner.
It has been an improbable journey, but a meeting with Arsenal doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the road for Birmingham. Barça have had onlookers salivating this season simply because there are no superlatives left to use, so Arsenal’s victory proved they’re finally able to mix with the very greatest. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat – football is a glorified game of Rock Paper Scissors. Arsenal sliced through Barcelona’s papery defence, but Blues could be the rock to blunt them. City’s style is undeniably agricultural, but the work ethic and doggedness resonates amongst amorous Bluenoses. The side’s tenacity strikes a chord with those from the once known as the ‘workshop of the world’.
So don’t expect it to be pretty from Blues. “There’s only one way we’re going to get a result,” Cameron Jerome told the BBC’s Dan Walker. “If we stand and admire Arsenal for 90 minutes, we’ll get our pants pulled down.” Getting caught flat-footed has seldom been a problem for Birmingham under Alex McLeish, who has instilled a level of discipline that has slogged out some remarkable results – including recently going a record-equalling 18 league games unbeaten at St Andrew’s.
Arsenal expect – Birmingham hope. The Gunners will have to be suffering from complacency, distraction or another form of malaise if they aren’t able to beat City over 90 minutes. It is a monumental challenge for Blues, who will have to leave everything on the pitch at Wembley. But with the stadium drowning in the sound of Sir Harry Lauder’s famous old song, perhaps there’ll be a few more joys than sorrows.
Keep right on.