Goalkeepers rarely make headlines for doing things well. When they do make the papers, it’s usually for high profile blunders. Like the two we witnessed in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley between Arsenal and Reading. The first howler came in the second half of regular time.
With Arsenal up 1-0, thanks to a first-half blast from Alexis Sanchez, keeper Wojciech Szczesny fumbled a save on a shot from Garath McCleary, allowing Reading the goal that would take the match to extra time. Szczesny has been relegated to bench warmer and Cup-keeper since his last headline-grabbing incident: being caught smoking in the showers at the Emirates Stadium after a culpable performance in Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Southampton on New Year’s Day.
But this time it won’t be Szczesny who gets the headlines. That honor will likely belong to Adam Federici. Late in the second period of extra time, the Reading keeper had a howler and effectively out-Szczesnyed Szczesny when he botched a save, allowing a shot from Sanchez to spill in for the winner. It was a bitter moment for the keeper who’d put in an otherwise commendable performance against the Gunners.
Federici wasn’t the only Reading player who made a good showing on the day. Arsenal found the going tougher than expected against the Championship side, which defended well and dominated the match for long stretches.
Gabriel Paulista, who came on after Per Mertesacker hobbled off, came close twice, striking the post with one shot and heading over with another. Aaron Ramsey also spurned a good chance to win the game in regular time. But just as in last season’s Cup fixtures against Wigan and Hull, Arsene Wenger’s men dug in and eventually found a way through, thanks to Sanchez’s undying industry and Federici’s howler.
Wenger also tinkered with his lineup, making a few risky selections. But it ultimately came off, although only just. Szczesny in particular looked low on confidence and was nerve-wracking to watch throughout much of the 90-plus minutes. Mathieu Debuchy was restored to the lineup after a lengthy injury layoff. Filling in for Hector Bellerin, the Frenchman looked rusty but made it through 120 minutes, despite fighting off cramps late in the match.
Danny Welbeck, starting ahead of Olivier Giroud, was largely a disappointment. While his pace and ability to get behind defenders added another dimension to Arsenal’s attack, he squandered a gilt-edged chance in the first half and was replaced by Giroud in the second.
But although the lineup was somewhat experimental, it worked. And Arsenal will go into the final against Aston Villa as favorites to retain the trophy they won last May. With so many players returned from injury, the Gunners should have the depth to beat Villa in the final. Although this is a Villa team that’s undone them in the past, most notably on the opening day of the 2013-2014 season, when they came to the Emirates and beat Arsenal 3-1. But this Arsenal team seems to have grown up since then. Their soft center has hardened over the past couple of seasons. If they can retain the FA Cup and manage the second-place finish that’s currently within their grasp, Arsenal could be in-line for their best season in a decade.