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FA Cup Third Round, 05/01/02
Plan A
By Ian Grant

At about ten past twelve, this didn't seem like such a great idea. By then, Arsenal's weakened line-up - just the ten internationals - had already silenced a sell-out crowd by nonchalantly strolling into a two-nil lead. It was difficult to escape the knowledge that they could, if they wished, score at the same rate for the remaining eighty minutes. Casual and lethal, they were threatening to humble us in front of the nation.

Terrifyingly, they'd yet to advance on Plan A: fast bloke breaks offside trap, fast bloke receives pass with the defence ten yards behind him, fast bloke either does it on his own or passes to other bloke to score into empty net, all blokes celebrate in disinterested fashion. We'd yet to work out where they were, let alone what to do when we managed to get near them. The rest of the game stretched ahead like seventy laps of a Grand Prix in a battered 2CV.

That's the context in which the performance must be judged. As a contest over a place in the Fourth Round, the game held no serious interest after its devastating opening. Instead, it was a fight for dignity and respectability, for something that we never achieved against Millwall - the reassurance that, even in comprehensive defeat, we'd "given of our best", as GT would say.

After all, in trying to get into the Premiership or in attempting to stay in it, we'll never be in the position of needing to beat Arsenal. To measure ourselves against them is an academic exercise, with entirely predictable results. But to measure our own qualities - the spirit of the team, the reaction to setbacks, the progress and potential of young players - is far more worthwhile. And, on this occasion, it offered some encouragement during what might've been a painful afternoon.

Sure, Arsenal remained in second gear throughout and, still able to carve us apart with Plan A, they never needed to resort to Plan B, whatever it might've been. With the outcome beyond doubt, the whole thing rather resembled watching edited highlights on "Match of the Day" with full knowledge of the final scores. Still, we stuck at it admirably, never coming to terms with the sheer quality of our opponents but slowly and surely realising that we might be able to give them some problems in return. We couldn't live with Arsenal, so we slept rough in their garden shed for a while. Gary Fisken, for example, spent forty-five minutes chasing shadows, then concentrated on seeing if he could make a more positive contribution instead...and, to an extent, succeeded. These are small things, but they shouldn't be ignored.

Back to the start, anyway. Within thirty seconds, Arsenal had passed the ball hither and thither and hither again, while we tried to work out what they'd done with it. That ended with Cole taking a theatrical tumble in the box under challenge from Pierre Issa, and we were momentarily safe. Indeed, as Gifton Noel-Williams chased Neil Cox's long clearance and was only foiled by a decisive welly from Taylor, it seemed as if we might be allowed to settle. And then it didn't.

First, Kanu sauntered towards the box and, while everyone waited for him to shoot, Henry slipped through the defence like a ghost through a wall. Although the three quarters of the Watford defence that didn't include Patrick Blondeau had pushed out, that remaining quarter played Henry onside and he beat Alec Chamberlain with supreme ease. When Kanu's delightful flick on Cole's through-ball sent Henry away again two minutes later, and the Frenchman drew Chamberlain out before offering a goal on a plate to Ljungberg, we appeared unable to do anything but play the role of traffic cones in an extended Arsenal training session.

Even if the descending gloom was lifted considerably and immediately by Gifton Noel-Williams' fabulous header, powering the ball into the top corner from Gary Fisken's in-swinging cross, the rest of the half was really about keeping the score respectable. Which we did, just about. In truth, we were barely able to cope with our illustrious opposition, as Arsenal flicked the ball around the pitch with such accuracy and poise and imagination. In contrast, our own passing football rarely got further than Chamberlain rolling the ball out to Vega before we discovered that, while Henry is clearly no Claridge, Arsenal also work bloody hard at putting their opponents under pressure.

The visitors were in total control, and should've added more long before Kanu's decisive third. After Paolo Vernazza's wayward cross-field pass had landed at Pires' feet and the subsequent cross had been presented to Van Bronckhorst by a combination of Vernazza and Vega, Chamberlain pulled off a fine one-handed save to keep the ball out of the bottom corner. Moments later, Keown failed to get sufficient power on an unmarked header from Campbell's lofted ball. Each a clear-cut chance, each too easy to create. Kanu's shot, hit as he turned and fell inside the box, rose over the bar after forty minutes.

Although we'd managed to compose ourselves a little by half-time, and were given a round of kindly applause for that when the referee blew his whistle, the game was absurdly one-sided. More than anything, we were without aggression, for there was nothing - from, say, a Robinson or a Helguson - to unsettle Arsenal and to fire up the crowd. Fisken's yellow card for hacking at an escaping Pires was about as close as it got. Instead, as our passing faltered and the more direct approach lacked penetration, the game was played at Arsenal's lovely, lazy tempo and the stirring Third Round tie that we'd hoped for was replaced by an exhibition match. Aside from long distance shots into the Vic Road end from Allan Nielsen and Tommy Smith, there was absolutely no threat to the visitors' goal.

It's more difficult to be forgiving of our new, highly-paid defence than it would've been with past line-ups perhaps, but this was far beyond anything that we have to deal with on a regular basis. Thankfully. To prove the point, Arsenal finished the half with a couple of final, elegant flourishes. Ljungberg's simple pass into Henry was turned into something else altogether by the striker's dummy, leaving the defence confused and offering Kanu the opportunity to beat Chamberlain. Which he wasn't inclined to do, preferring to make things more interesting for himself by fannying about until there were lots of people in the way. When he did eventually shoot, the keeper deflected the ball into the side netting.

As injury time began, we could only admire Vieira's brilliant, brilliant chipped pass from the edge of the box, lofting the ball into the path of the on-running Van Bronckhorst. We admired the use of the left arm for initial control rather less...although, as he scored with ease, we were grateful for the linesman's flag to point out what the referee had missed. The score remained far closer than the game itself.

The same applies to the second half. Nevertheless, our performance was pleasing, if only because it showed considerable tenacity and no little mental strength. As the game continued, and as an unlikely comeback became still more unlikely, we held our heads up and deserved to have our disappointment diluted by a small measure of pride. Although Tommy Smith never managed to make much of an impression, Gifton Noel-Williams gave the Arsenal defence as many problems as his isolated role would allow and others - Gary Fisken, Patrick Blondeau - committed themselves to the cause with enthusiasm. In short, we attempted to bridge the gap, even if we clearly failed to do so.

For Arsenal, the chances kept on coming. Pires broke in the first minute and Henry's curling cross flashed across the face of goal. Then Kanu found himself on the end of Ljungberg's low cross at the far post and was only denied by a desperate block from Blondeau, before Vieira met Henry's centre with a stretching boot and diverted it wide. Even now, we hadn't worked out where they were or what they were about to do; even now, every attack pulled our defence into new shapes. No surprise, then, when Kanu's pass dissected the back four to reach Vieira, sprinting into the area on the right, and the Nigerian arrived to steer the resulting cross past Chamberlain for Arsenal's third. We would've been standing and watching, if we'd have known where to look.

When one side can score at will and the other can barely manage a shot, football loses most of its appeal. Although Vernazza and Fisken managed off-target efforts, Arsenal's Plan A continued to devastate. Twenty minutes in, Pires sent Kanu ambling through the shattered remnants of our offside trap - he opted for a more straightforward finish this time, and Chamberlain saved superbly with his legs. Shortly afterwards, a straightforward finish would've seen Pires on the scoresheet as he released Henry and, after Chamberlain had emerged from his line to confront an on-rushing forward yet again, received a return pass with an open goal in front of him. Inexplicably, he appeared to forget to kick the ball.

For our spirit and determination, we deserved a little something. Sure, we could hardly make much of a case for anything more than a little something...but we'd refused to be deterred by the fact that we were clearly out of our depth. Looking back, better finishing might actually have restored some interest to proceedings, as Tommy Smith whacked Blondeau's cross over from six yards and then headed at Taylor from only slightly further out. In between, however, Plan A had yielded another identical goal - Wiltord releasing Cole, Cole teasing Chamberlain, Bergkamp sticking the ball into the empty net. Yawn.

Still, we had the last, largely irrelevant cheer of the afternoon, which sums up our performance better than I can. In injury time, Jamie Hand slid the ball into Heidar Helguson's path. When the cross came in, a combination of Taylor and Keown made an almighty mess of it, colliding and allowing Smith to set up Marcus Gayle for a fierce finish from a tight angle. Hurrah. Again, a decisive contribution from the dynamic Helguson, whose omission from the side betrays the fact that he can either be played out of position in a wide role or put in place of Noel-Williams, an altogether better target man.

Gayle's strike created a scoreline that flatters us in some respects and not in others. True, while barely breaking sweat, Arsenal might've - indeed, should've - had about eight. Also true, though, that Watford remained positive and purposeful, even when it would've been apparent to someone who'd never heard of football that they were being completely out-played. It didn't make for a thrilling spectacle, nor did it give us much to shout about.

It'll do, though.