After Old Trafford thrashing, Arsenal must win '12 cup finals'

by Jem Maidment The disarray of that demoralising 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford must now be forgotten – 12 cup finals begin at St Andrews tomorrow lunchtime. Picking through the post-match carnage of last Saturday, Arsenal s manager Arsene Wenger did his best to put on a

The disarray of that demoralising 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford must now be forgotten - 12 "cup finals" begin at St Andrews tomorrow lunchtime.

Picking through the post-match carnage of last Saturday, Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger did his best to put on a show of defiance.

With his league leaders five points clear of second-placed United in the more important matter of the Barclays Premier League, he was already looking ahead to his side's league visit to the same venue on April 12.

"You will see us in a different shape when we come back - and I hope the pitch will be in different shape as well," said Wenger, with more than a hint of frustration at the state of the bog-like Old Trafford playing surface.

But that sly dig appeared to be a case of sour grapes.

Regardless of the quality of the pitch, his side was systematically dismantled by a hungrier, more aggressive United side.

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In some quarters the Gunners have been, rather charitably, accused of taking the game too lightly - a charge Wenger strenuously denied even before leaving the scene of the crime.

He maintained he played the strongest, fittest, starting 11 at his disposal last Saturday.

"What can I do?" he asked, arms outstretched in frustration, afterwards. "I never felt we were really in the game and afterwards that can make you crazy. Nobody was fit on the bench and all of them were recommended as risky.

"The most dangerous player was [Gael] Clichy who I did not touch at all. The others had hamstring problems."

For 9,000 Arsenal fans, it meant a long, despondent journey home - never pleasant at the best of times, particularly in the cavernous maze of car parks and roads that surround the self-styled Theatre of Dreams.

A small-but-growing criticism of the manager among those caught in traffic jams on the southbound M6 was his apparent disdain of the domestic knockout competitions. They may be small fry trophies in the current glam of Champions and Premier League glitz, but that's not a universal view shared on the terraces.

Only a month ago those same supporters, having paid top dollar for the umpteenth time, were forced to sit through another shattering cup defeat to bitter rivals Tottenham in the Carling Cup semi-final. That loss still hurts like few others during Wenger's reign. The Boss has sympathy: "At the moment it is unbelievable. When we lose in the cup we get a hiding. We don't concede in the League but when we do concede we do it well."

Those losses have also exposed the frailties of his overstretched squad. William Gallas has still to convince many followers of his leadership qualities. He may have the pre-match rhetoric, but across the white line, on occasions when he has needed to step to the fore, he simply hasn't.

For Old Trafford also read White Hart Lane on another night of cup infamy - the jury remains out for some fans, although it would be unfair to single out just the Frenchman who, on the whole, has made a positive impact this season, especially after it looked as if he may be shown the door last summer.

In midfield, Cesc Fabregas had the look of a man who had last night's clash with AC Milan on his mind. Surely he can't perform so anonymously again this term.

In defence, Justin Hoyte's future at the club is by no means assured. A rough ride in Manchester adds to the uncertainty. His full back partner, Armand Traore, is probably still traumatised after a hellish 90 minutes. Age, however, is on his side. This one can be put down to experience.

It would be a welcome sight to see Clichy and the mightily impressive Bacary Sagna - still in mourning after the sudden death of his brother last week - return for the trip to Birmingham.

The club's most experienced outfield player has called for his colleagues to focus on the league run-in, free of any other domestic interruptions - and win at a Birmingham side who earned a shock 1-1 draw at Emirates last month.

"Of course we can bounce back," insists Brazilian midfielder Gilberto. "If you look at Manchester United, they had a bad result against Manchester City, a big disappointment to them, and they came back very strong in this game against us.

"It's the same for us. We will come back even stronger because we don't want to let the opportunities pass us by this season.

"We must bounce back if we want to achieve something. This group is ambitious to win trophies this season. The FA Cup is very important and we're disappointed to be knocked out, but we need to look forward.

"It is important that we focus on our position in the league, where we are five points clear, a situation very much in our favour. We must learn from our mistakes and not let a performance like this happen again."

Wenger concurs. "The targets that are in front of us are very clear," he said. "They are the Premier League and the Champions League.

We are not in a position where we have to make a choice. We just have balanced fixtures now."

And ex-Arsenal star Paul Merson, who has consistently voiced his displeasure at Wenger's selection policy in the cups, says it is a different story in the bread-and-butter Premier League.

"We can even afford to lose at Old Trafford [in April] and still win the title," he said.

"If we win it, we can all forget these cup defeats - and Wenger will be justified in playing weakened sides. With 12 games to go and five points clear, I am supremely confident. It's ours to lose.