By Paul Gardner
Carling Cup final 2011: Birmingham City 2 Arsenal 1. If only all the soccer finals were like this one. I'm not about to say that this final had everything, but it had more than ample amounts of most of the things that any decent final should have, in particular entertainment.
Let’s face it, most finals these days are disappointing. The letdown often is caused by the game being over-hyped. The Carling Cup is lucky there -- everyone knows it’s a “B” tournament, not the real thing (that’s the FA Cup), so it avoids the supercharged buildup.
Specifically, a final should have incidents, not just a few, but a constant stream of them, of things happening, it should sway first this way then that, end-to-end action, it should be evenly balanced (why not? this is a final, remember), plenty of chances, near misses, goalkeeper saves, it should have tension and drama ... and it must be played fairly: hard tackles there will be, fouls for sure, but not so many as to sour the game or to force an overly prominent role on the referee ... though we should expect, even welcome, a talking point or two, which will usually involve a perceived referee injustice.
Of course, the give-and-take that I’m outlining really ought to apply to every soccer game. But we should demand it in a final.
Odd. I haven’t mentioned the caliber of the soccer. Obviously, it must be good -- but it doesn’t have to be sublime. In this game it was not necessarily of the highest grade - but that factor becomes less important when you’re watching two more-than-capable teams “giving it a go.”
Sorry about the cliche, but it fits nicely here. My compliments to both coaches. Two teams with barely a thought of defensive play, two teams intent on looking for goals. We knew we’d get that from Arsenal - under Wenger, Arsenal have never played defensively (cautiously on occasions, yes, as they did for too much of the recent game against Barcelona). Birmingham ... well, they were pretty massive underdogs, and soccer underdogs invariably opt for the 10-men-behind-the-ball and “catch-‘em-on-the-break” stance. Not this time. Coach Alex McLeish had Birmingham up and running -- at Arsenal -- from the get-go.
We got the refereeing incident early: after only 2 minutes, Lee Bowyer raced clean through the center -- the always rather suspect center -- of the Arsenal defense, to be comprehensively wiped out by Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Which should have meant a PK to Birmingham and a red card to Szczesny. Arsenal and Szczesny were saved by an awful decision from the AR, who flagged Bowyer as offside.
Perversely, it was also a decision that saved the game from being distorted into an unbalanced 10 vs. 11 contest. That’s soccer for you.
Yes, Arsenal played the better soccer, no doubt about that, and they had more of the ball, and more chances. But Birmingham defended skillfully - without resorting to repeated fouling. In fact Arsenal fouled more, and more recklessly - a Laurent Koscielny foul on Bowyer, in particular, was border-line red.
Birmingham did much more than defend. They quickly forgot about the PK they should have had and scored with a header from their monumental forward Nikola Zigic - which should make Arsenal blush, as everyone in the entire soccer universe knew he had to be watched closely, or preferably crowded out, at corner kicks. Arsenal omitted to do either.
Robin van Persie’s equalizer was a beauty, a splendid side volley, right after the thrillingly precocious Jack Wilshere had smashed a shot off the bar.
I suppose the less said about Birmingham’s winner, the better. The scorer, Obafemi Martins, admitted it was the easiest goal he’d ever scored, and that seems likely. It was also probably the most rapturously celebrated.
The awful snafu between Szczesny and Koscielny added just about everything bearable to the end of the game - drama for everyone, tragedy for Arsenal, joy for Birmingham, and surely a cup-final moment that will long be remembered. Poor Szczesny will suffer worse, no doubt, though there seemed to be enough blame for both to share. Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster tried to help Szczesny out by putting all the blame on Koscielny (yet another example, as if we needed one, of a goalkeeper who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut).
I could use more cliches. But not the one that likens soccer to chess. No, certainly not that one. This was anything but a contest between programmed wooden figures. The cliche about leaving it all out of the field suggests itself, but it is a measure of just how devalued those words are that they seem almost obscene when applied to this final.
This final was not a chess game, nor a cliche. It was a vibrant, living game. A game with personality, because played by two teams with personality. We don’t hear much talk of a team’s personality today, it seems old-fashioned to use such a term, not scientific enough. What we do hear -- the phrase came up several times during the telecast of the Carling Cup final -- is talk of a team’s “shape.” The chess-board mentality again.
Rightly or wrongly, I prefer to believe that yesterday’s game owed much more to personality than to shape. A game that never seemed to lose its intensity or its promise that something good or something bad (depending on your shirt color, of course) was about to happen.
I can’t help comparing it to last year’s World Cup final -- only seven months ago -- between the Netherlands and Spain, a great occasion utterly wrecked by the Dutch insistence on turning it into a brawl. Attitude is everything. Birmingham and Arsenal wanted to play soccer. A look at the substitutions underlines that -- three subs for Birmingham, two for Arsenal -- and all five of them were out-and-out attacking players.
Entertainment was very much the name of this game. Arsenal and Birmingham gave us a memorable game full of the right attitude. A final to remember.