For a second successive season, Arsenal will aim to avoid a major slip up against Championship opposition in order to reach the final of the FA Cup. After having to come from behind to edge past Wigan Athletic on penalties, this time Arsenal take on a Reading side playing in their first semifinal of the famous old competition since 1927.
On paper, it has the makings of a straightforward victory for Arsenal and a return to Wembley next month to take on either Aston Villa or Liverpool for the prize of superseding Manchester United as the most successful club in the competition’s history. With eight successive victories, Arsenal have amassed their best winning run since the famous unbeaten Premier League season of 2003-2004. And right now manager Arsène Wenger has as large and competitive a squad available to him as he has in some time. The options going forward are plentiful, with Wenger having a decision to make on Saturday over whether to give some rare recent game time to Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. Meanwhile, midfielder Jack Wilshere and right-back Mathieu Debuchy are available for selection after long-term injuries.
Flying high in second place in the Premier League, there is, if still some faint hope of catching Chelsea, genuine optimism heading toward next season. And their opponents at Wembley should not pose undue concern. Reading have made their way to the FA Cup’s final four without having to negotiate a Premier League side, and their recent form in the Championship has been less than impressive. Without a win in their last five matches, and without a goal in their last two, Reading lie 18th in the Championship standings.
Yet there is plenty of recent evidence to suggest that any complacency over Arsenal’s presumed progress on Saturday would be a mistake. The last defeat for Wenger’s men came in a disastrous 3-1 loss to Monaco that cost them their place in the Champions League and furthered a trend of the team wilting when struggled to recover.
It was a similar story in the FA Cup last season. Overwhelming favorites to beat Wigan, Arsenal required an 82nd minute equalizer and then the drama of penalties. The final, too, followed much the same theme. Against Premier League strugglers Hull City, Arsenal went two goals behind in the first eight minutes before eventually finding their feet to take their first trophy in nine years thanks to Aaron Ramsey’s extra-time winner.
Of course, their character to fight back deserves credit, but the fact remains that Arsenal should not have been in that position in the first place. For as well as they’ve played recently and the greater versatility they’ve displayed in their approach of late, Arsenal have to show that they can deliver when it really matters and when the weight of expectation is firmly on their shoulders.
A confident victory against Reading would go some way to fueling belief both inside and outside the Emirates Stadium. It would help suggest that Arsenal are capable of sustaining a serious challenge for the Premier League title next season, rather than making hay when all is already all but lost, or, as last season, fading spectacularly when the real battle at the top commences.
In terms of pure quality, Arsenal should have far too much for a Reading side that have picked up little since former West Brom manager Steve Clarke took over last December. But so often, Wenger has ascribed his side’s failings in big games to their mentality. It will be down to him to instill the right attitude in those players and to ensure that, unlike against Monaco, they crucially retain their poise under duress.
Prediction: In the last three meetings between the sides, during Reading’s most recent season in the Premier League two years ago, there were an incredible 24 goals shared between them. It is difficult to see quite that level of penalty-box excitement this time around. Reading have struggled to hit the back of the net of late, and, although Russia international striker Pavel Pogrebnyak is set to return from injury, he has scored just seven goals this season. Still, Clarke showed at West Brom that he is fairly shrewd at setting up his team to be difficult to breakdown. And if there is some familiar tension in Arsenal’s boots early on then there could be an initial struggle. Ultimately, though, Arsenal’s recent confidence should ensure they avoid a catastrophic exit.
Predicted score: Arsenal over Reading, 2-0
Kickoff time: 12:20 p.m. EDT
Arsenal: Wenger has stated that, with David Ospina now the Premier League regular, Wojciech Szczesny will come into the side in goal. Wilshere is in contention for a place in the squad, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta continue to miss out.
Reading: Pogrebnyak is expected to shake off a calf complaint, but Nathan Ake and Kwesi Appiah, on loan from Chelsea and Crystal Palace, respectively, are cup-tied.