A quick bit of housekeeping before we begin in earnest: I was mercy-spared the Bayern Munich debacle (the second one, since they're plural) as I was on the tarmac at LAX for roughly a million hours that day. I'll tell you, I've never been happier to be stuck on an airplane. Even today, in the wake of a hopefully ship-righting win in the FA Cup, it's sad to see the boss *still* wittering on about how the referee killed that game. No, my friend, playing ten forwards with a man down (our best defender no less) against one of the 2-3 best clubs in the world is what killed us. My god.
Anyway, that said...on to today's action.
1. I said it in the Sutton United match report, and I'll say it again - there's no real way to win here if you're in our shoes. Win by a comprehensive scoreline, and you've only beaten up on a fifth-division club. Win by a labored struggle (like the Sutton match), and you get raked over the coals from all corners. Lose, and the name of that opponent is a by-word for catastrophic failure decades later (cough cough Wrexham cough cough).
This was a slightly different animal from the Sutton match, in the sense that while Lincoln are demonstrably better at their level than our previous non-league opponents, the comforts of home made this feel far more like a regular match. Our lot turning up to Gander Green Lane, on the other hand, felt like they had beamed down to an alien planet. Here, it's just another team of plucky triers sticking 10 men behind the ball and trying to pick us off on set pieces - hell, this could have been the visit of West Brom or Hull.
To their credit, Lincoln are well-drilled and it's not hard to see why they're top of the table in the Conference National. That big lad Rhead up top probably bulldozes defenses down there in the Romelu Lukaku style. The keeper (more on him in a bit) also is probably playing at least one division below his ability on this evidence. There's some talent there. But, this ended up being one of those instances where the gulf in fitness and class was far too difficult for them to live with over 90 minutes. Had we had to play this at Sincil Bank? I don't know, maybe it might have been a different story.
2. Speaking of, I wonder what all the Petr Cech haters have to say about the fact that he royally bailed us out today. At 0-0, with the atmosphere around the club as toxic as it is, imagine if we had gone 0-1 down to this lot. Seriously, mull that possibility over in your mind. The Lincoln manager rightly told the press afterwards that "in the Conference, that goes in". At the end of the day, our goalkeeper came up with a top-class save at the exact moment that we needed it the most. Anything else is just uneducated white noise.
3. But, man, that first 45 minutes were absolutely brutal. I don't think it's a massive stretch to say that had we played even Championship-level opposition, we might be having a far less fun conversation. The Imps were compact, they snapped into tackles and generally made life difficult for us, as most would have assumed going in.
Still, at times it was astonishing to see us lumping long balls up towards Olivier Giroud, or hoicking crosses into the penalty area like it's not the same shit their defenders deal with on a weekly basis. We literally could not have made it easier for them during the first half. I couldn't understand why we didn't razzle-dazzle them with the very same neat little passing triangles that players down in their division are incapable of attempting. Sure, we have to mix it up more against better opposition, but this is the one time where we should have broken out the party pieces far earlier than we did.
4. To the boss' credit though, we did exactly that in the second half. Whereas the first stanza was a dirge of sterile domination (75-25% possession but sweet eff-all done with it), the second was a 45-minute exhibition of just how hard it is for a club like Lincoln to live with the small-but-significant margins between divisions one and five.
After a while, the Imps had to resort to kicking lumps out of anything in red that moved, and even that eventually failed them as they tired out and started futilely chasing shadows. To my mind, a massive contributing factor was the forced introduction of Mesut Ozil into the fray after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went off injured.
Here's the thing: For the most part, many of our players are basically top-shelf, souped-up versions of what they see every week against Dover or Braintree Town. I'm not saying that Aaron Ramsey or Kieran Gibbs or Olivier Giroud are fifth-division caliber - far from it. What I mean is that they aren't pulling Leo Messi rabbits out of their hats, they're simply faster and stronger and just that little bit more technically-sound, with that little bit faster and sharper of a footballing brain to go with it. But, Ozil? Alexis Sanchez? They are the kind of superlative talents that can do things that a Conference National player has never seen before, or could even comprehend at a fundamental level. Consider the difference between a chess grandmaster and the guy who holds their own against the hustlers in Union Square, and you'll get what I'm talking about.
Have another look at Alexis' thunderbastard of a goal, and find me someone in Lincoln's division that can do that outside of a wet dream. Go on, I'll wait.
5. Despite the near-miss of us nearly conceding in the first half, the real story here is that we might have won by double digits had it not been for the heroics of Paul Farman in the Lincoln goal. Any time there is a mismatch of this extent, the underdog's custodian will always have to perform miracles if his side is to have any chance of getting a result, and this was no different. There were shades of "here we go again" syndrome when he clawed Theo Walcott's brilliantly-taken volley onto the post and away to safety. Bloody hell, that was a Premier League-class save.
That's the one that stuck with me, but there were others as well. On another day, if they had a bit more rub of the green, those saves might have been far more consequential than they proved to be on this occasion. He was desperately unlucky on some of the goals, too. The first one from Walcott took two separate deflections on its way in, the third was a bit of an unlucky own-goal, the fifth was literally walked into the net (hope Arsene had a spare set of pants after that one) after his defense gave up in a cloud of fatigue and despair.
All I'm saying is that if I'm a club in League One or thereabouts, and I don't already have a top-class keeper for that environment, I'm on the horn to Lincoln as soon as the transfer window opens.
6. So, really now, what DOES Lucas Perez have to do to get a start? And, whatever it is, is it legal in the United Kingdom? Also, what does it say about our backup options at right back that Hector Bellerin played yet again today, against a fifth-division team?
7. Here's a fun stat for you - very quietly, Walcott is now at 5 goals in the competition this season, one below the leader. Who is that, you may ask? Turns out that it's Adam Morgan, from non-league side Curzon Ashton.
8. After the rest of the quarterfinal matches play out, one of Chelsea or Manchester United will be gone. However, the winner will be joined by us, Manchester City, and very likely our nearest and dearest. The non-league laff riot is over now, kids. Naturally, we have to put everything we have into winning this competition, as it's the only one left on the table for us.
You ask me, though? We're probably screwed no matter who we play, unless some serious improvement happens across the board.
9. Now that our FA Cup commitments are done and dusted for a month and change, it's back to the business of trying to salvage a top-four position in the league. Again.
Manchester City looms on April 2, but other than that, we have a run of extremely winnable fixtures in the near future. West Brom (away), West Ham (home), Crystal Palace (away), Middlesbrough (away), Sunderland (home). I'm not saying that 15 points is the minimum acceptable out of that...but it we don't get at least 10, I suspect that we're going to seriously find ourselves in deeper and murkier waters than we have any right being in.
The Twitter Brigade can go on and on all they want about how we have to spend the GDP of Earth to improve this squad, but frankly that is lunacy. This collection of players should be more than surplus to top-four requirements. It's about time that a certain someone started to get more out of them, and that's all there is to it.
I can take us losing away to Man City and away to the nearest and dearest is always a crapshoot at best, but the other matches above? We. Are. Better. Than. Them. It's time we started acting like it and carrying ourselves with the swagger that goes along with that.
10. This isn't Arsenal-related, but if you are one of those celebrating the Cheatalona-PSG result as some kind of magical joyous comeback that's brilliant for the sport, then you know what? You are seriously part of the problem. We've been done by referees enough times over the years in the Champions League (especially against Cheatalona) where it should rankle you as a Gooner that it continues to happen, and for that club's benefit. I can't conceive of the mindset it takes to watch that match and come to any other conclusion other than that money changed hands.
UEFA is the worst, and Cheatalona is the worst club in the world. IN. THE. WORLD.
Man of the Match: Paul Farman