Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn Rovers: Heartbreak

I will be in the minority here, but I do not think Arsenal played poorly today. This was a textbook case of the result being worse than the performance. What hurts is that this is the second time this season that a lower-league side has dumped us out of a winnable competition. Unlike the Bradford City abomination, this was a case where we ran into an in-form keeper and the breaks didn't go our way.

That said, questions have to be asked of the manager for what feels like the millionth time in the last seven seasons. Rotation wasn't the issue - that was always necessary and this starting XI should have handled Blackburn. What gets me was the inclusion of Gervinho in the starting lineup. I'm continually amazed at how one goal in the African Cup of Nations - aided and abetted by a horrendous goalkeeping effort - was enough to balance out the entirety of this season in the eyes of the world. This was the one trophy we were in with a shout of winning, and it should not have been trusted in the hands of a guy whose confidence abandoned him a eons ago.

Arsenal took the threat seriously after an early miss by Marcus Olsson, and dominated the rest of the half to a ludicrous extent. Francis Coquelin, deputizing at right back for the rested Bacary Sagna and the suspended Carl Jenkinson, was particularly lively. He also made several brilliant tackles as the half wore on.

Blackburn defended with determination and discipline though, as they effectively packed their area with a blue-clad Praetorian Guard. Gervinho made some decent runs, but often found cul-de-sacs with no one in support. The midfield fired cross after cross into the box, but Olivier Giroud did not have his best game in the center-forward role.

The visitors seemed to deliberately play the ball out for a corner kick whenever danger struck, knowing that Arsenal would be unable to capitalize. The Gunners duly lived up to the stereotype, with 12 or 13 set pieces going by the wayside in the first half alone. Jake Kean was never threatened in the Blackburn net.

Where oh where have you gone, Paul Robinson?

Finally, our eighth corner saw a brilliant ball played into the area by Tomas Rosicky. Abou Diaby rose highest and planted a solid header on net. Kean somehow parried it away with an amazing reflex save, a reaction which set the tone for the afternoon.

A few minutes later, Kean once again rescued his side with a superhuman display of alertness and quick reflexes. Yet another Arsenal corner came out to Thomas Vermaelen, whose looping header looked like it was going to sneak in despite the presence of several Blackburn defenders on the line.  Sadly, Kean arrived at the last moment to tip it to safety over the crossbar.

That was the frustrating bit - one had the feeling that had any of these gone in, Blackburn would have had to push men forward to try to equalize. Had that happened, they would surely have been eviscerated by our guys on the counter.

The worst was yet to come though, and no prizes for guessing which of our attackers was responsible for it.

Just before halftime, a quick Arsenal attack saw Rosicky do what he does best - a gorgeous defense-splitting pass that shredded the opposition. Gervinho was unfortunately the beneficiary, and that goes back to what I said in the open. No one chance is ever a certainty to go in, but I believe that any of our attackers other than him would probably have put it away. Once again, we go up 1-0 there, we go on to win the game comfortably.

Needless to say, Gervinho not only missed, but despite the keeper going the wrong way he couldn't so much as get it on frame. But, I don't blame the man himself. We all know what he is at this point. I blame the manager who selected him to start one of the most important matches of our season despite the mountain range of evidence indicating that his best position is "substitute".

Arsenal were not as lively in the second half, an audacious overhead kick from the otherwise-quiet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain aside. The visitors dropped ever deeper, and our guys couldn't thread the needle in their crowded penalty area. It was bleedingly obvious by the hour mark that substitutions were needed, but to the surprise of no one the manager stuck it out with the eleven on the field.

That said, at the time I was still confident that we'd win, and even said so to Brett in the pub. It worked out well against Stoke, as you may recall. And, there was the one moment where it looked like that would come to fruition. Rosicky, who had a storming game, was the catalyst once again. Out of nothing, he turned and fired a rocket towards the far post. The second that left his foot, I leaped off my barstool. It was dipping just right, over the futile dive of Kean.

That was the moment. Yet again, if that goes in, we go on to win the game. Heart-rendingly, it found the crossbar instead of the top corner of the net. Bloody hell.

Belatedly, the manager made all three substitutions, and on the face of it was heartening to see. Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott came on for Rosicky, Gervinho and the Ox. That gave us no shortage of attacking options, and it should have been enough to break down the obstinate Rovers defense.

Instead, seconds later, a toxic combination of shite luck and worse defending gave Blackburn the goal that put them through to the next round.  A hopeful punt upfield was corralled by Olsson and directed on net. Wojceich Szczesny, who barely had a thing to do all game, got two hands to it. This may be harsh, but I thought his rebound control let him down. He needed to direct it off to the side, but the rebound instead came back out to the center of the area. The Arsenal defense were nowhere, and Colin Kazim-Richards was first to the loose ball. At first, it looked like his weak hit had spared our blushes, as it looked to be looping wide. Instead, it hit the bar and banked into the net.

That's what it came down to, really. Ours hit the bar and went out to safety, theirs hit the post and went in.

That sucker punch deflated Ashburton Grove, and it took a long while for the Gunners to get back to anything resembling attacking fluency. Despite the firepower on the field, they couldn't find the final ball to seriously test Kean. Diaby had one shot pushed out by the keeper, but it was always comfortable for him.

There was one last hope for redemption, though. Wilshere tried to will us forward, and his cross from the left was immaculate. Walcott scythed through the middle to latch onto it, and his free header was hit well. Had he directed it to either side of Kean, it likely would have been the equalizer. Even as it stood, a rebound should have been there for Walcott to sweep in. Somehow, Kean was able to catch and hold the shot, and that was that.

Eight years it will be without a trophy now. To put that into perspective, our trophy drought is now in third grade. I don't have it in me to go much further down that rabbit hole - I mean, it was an effort to even write this report. Sadly, I already played the guest-writer card last week.

At the end of the day, it is another lost season in a growing litany of them. If that isn't bad enough, Bayern Munich awaits on Tuesday week. Let's keep it to single digits at least, OK lads?


The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 6, Monreal 6, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Coquelin 7, Arteta 6, Diaby 7, Gervinho 6 (Cazorla 7), Rosicky 7 (Wilshere 7), Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Walcott 7), Giroud 5.


Man of the Match: There isn't much to choose from. I was leaning towards Coquelin for a while, but it's hard to give it to anyone other than Tomas Rosicky. He damn near won us the game with his effort against the crossbar, and anyone other than Gervinho would have scored on his brilliant through-ball.