Pitchside

Facts: 7 football truths – Wenger must win the FA Cup or go

Pitchside

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1. No more excuses: Arsenal must end their trophy drought this season

Arsenal fans have grown bitterly accustomed to disappointment since they last tasted silverware in the 2005 FA Cup final. In fact, so long has the gap been, Pep Guardiola has found the time to retire from playing, coach Barcelona B for a year, win 14 trophies as Barcelona manager, have a sabbatical and then break a ridiculous number of Bundesliga records with Bayern Munich. Arsenal fans, meanwhile, have been forced to live a life of almost unyielding misery when it comes to major competitions, giving weight to Jose Mourinho’s claims that Arsene Wenger is “a specialist in failure”.

In 2006 they took a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the Champions League final, only for their 10 men to eventually wilt and concede twice in the closing stages; 12 months later they lost to Chelsea, again 2-1 after going a goal up, in the final of the League Cup. Both of these results were eminently understandable, if disappointing, coming as they did against better and more experienced teams. Rather, it is the annual league collapses, the cup capitulations and, above all else, the League Cup final defeat to Birmingham City in 2011 that have hurt so badly and cut so, so deep.

But now, following Manchester City’s shock exit to Wigan Athletic, Arsenal are the huge favourites to lift the FA Cup, facing Wigan in the semi-final and then, if they make it, one of Sheffield United or Hull City in the final. Quite simply, Arsenal cannot mess this up now; the cards are so heavily stacked in their favour. Even a team as chronically afflicted by the jitters as Arsenal can’t let this chance slip, can they?

The Gunners looked rather magisterial in the second half of their 4-1 quarter-final win over Everton and their squad puts any other left in the competition to shame. It is not just about technical quality though: if it was, Arsenal would have won a trophy long ago. It will come down to mental strength and durability, and if, from this position, Wenger suffers disappointment yet again, there can be no case for keeping him in charge of a team that would have only cemented its pathological defeatism. Win the FA Cup or go.

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2. Pellegrini is now all-in on the Premier League

When Manuel Pellegrini was told upon taking charge of Manchester City that he had been set a target of five trophies in five seasons, one can only assume the club did not mean Capital One Cups. A win at Wembley over Sunderland was welcome, of course, but City appointed Pellegrini to avoid embarrassments such as Roberto Mancini’s FA Cup final humbling at the hands of Wigan last season. Incredibly, though, lightning struck twice on Sunday evening.

City’s performance was sloppy beyond belief but the question must be asked: just how seriously were they taking this match? It had the feel of a pre-season friendly as Javi Garcia paraded his new-born child in front of the City fans and Pellegrini took the strange decision to go decked out in a club hoodie, rather than his usual shirt. Cosmetic complaints, yes, but perhaps they spoke to an underlying truth.

With their Champions League hopes all but shattered following a 2-0 loss to Barcelona in the first leg of their last-16 tie, the Premier League has now assumed huge importance, and Chelsea are nine points ahead having played three games more than City. Jose Mourinho said he would swap places with Pellegrini – a clear case of mind games – but the pressure is on the Chilean now.

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3. Tim Sherwood is playing with fire after candid camera moment

Brutal honesty in post-match interviews should always be encouraged in a sport which has been sanitised to an extraordinary degree – with the mindless phrase “we’ll take each game as it comes” now part of the fabric of football - but there was still something rather shocking about Tim Sherwood’s willingness to lay into his Tottenham players after their abject performance in a 4-0 defeat to Chelsea.

Sherwood’s candid critique of his players boiled down to this: “[There’s a] lack of characters, too many of them are too nice to each other, we need to show some guts and not be someone’s mate all the time … It hurts me.” Things started going seriously downhill for Sherwood’s predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas, after he criticised the Tottenham supporters and Sherwood may have crossed a similar line. Hanging his players out to dry so spectacularly could prove a cute motivating technique, or it could backfire badly.

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4. Manchester United’s best XI is actually pretty good

After the debacle of Olympiacos, in the wake of which Man Utd had to bat away rumours that David Moyes could be set to lose his job and the manager wrote an open letter to fans, a better performance was essential against West Brom on Saturday. United delivered one. What would have once seemed a routine performance and victory stood out like a diamond in a sewer of excrement against the backdrop of the club’s terrible season.

Moyes has struggled to identify his best XI but Saturday's teamsheet looked encouraging from the moment it first dropped, with Van Persie being supported by Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini patrolling midfield. In fact, Chris Smalling, playing alongside Patrice Evra, Phil Jones and Rafael, was the only player you’d replace in the team – with the absent Jonny Evans of course – and a stylish 3-0 victory, even against a desperately struggling West Brom, suggested that, finally, Moyes may have hit on a winning combination. More of the same please.

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5. Fulham are now out of options

They got rid of Martin Jol, Rene Meulensteen, Alan Curbishley, Ray Wilkins and even the Michael Jackson statue but nothing has halted Fulham's shocking form this season which increasingly looks like leading them to the Championship.

Against Cardiff, Felix Magath gave first starts of the season to strikers Kostas Mitroglou and Cauley Woodrow. One of those is an £11.5m club record signing, the other a teenager who scored only twice in 18 games on loan at Southend earlier this season. Neither was effective. Fulham have now used 36 different players in the Premier League this season, far more than any other team. They have tried everything to change their fortunes but stability. Magath now has no option now but to work with what he's got, and that's not much by the looks of things.

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6. Ironic celebrations > muted celebrations

Only recently, football witnessed a truly ridiculous moment when Wes Hoolahan refused to celebrate against Aston Villa having been a target for them in the January transfer window. This was the nadir of the craze of faux respect which has blighted the once fair Premier League, with what must be described as ‘classy touches’ becoming all too common.

Thankfully, this weekend provided a counterpoint to such nonsense as two players actually showed some wit and imagination when celebrating their respective goals. On Saturday, Samuel Eto’o marked a goal against Tottenham by pretending to hobble, using the corner flag as a walking stick, to allude to the recent debate over his age. Then, on Sunday, David Meyler headbutted the corner flag after scoring for Hull against Sunderland, just a week after his infamous clash with Alan Pardew.

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7. Steve Bruce is a much better manager at Hull than he was at Sunderland

Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final between Hull and Sunderland couldn’t help but invite comparisons between Steve Bruce’s managerial stints at both clubs and following a 3-0 win for Hull there was only one verdict: Bruce has greatly improved since his disappointing spell on Wearside.

Bruce never succeeded in taking the Black Cats as far as the quarter-finals, let alone the semi-finals, but now Hull find themselves in the last four for the first time since 1930. His fine work at Hull is evident for all to see: they have adapted well to the Premier League since promotion, boast players like Curtis Davies who Bruce is getting the best out of, and should not be discounted as dark horses given they will be in the final if they can beat Sheffield United, and Arsenal will likely await...

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