Goalkeeping disasters

If Arsenal’s second choice goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski (in pic) begins it well, then he goes on to play well. Should he begin with a mistake, then things continue to go wrong.

“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” And what about the third time, one wondered, as the bizarre goalkeeping of Lukasz Fabianski, second choice Arsenal keeper, at Wembley, virtually handed the FA Cup semifinal to Chelsea. That evening, Nigel Winterburn, not long ago the Arsenal left-back in back four so much more solid than the one they have today, opined that all depends on how Fabianski starts a game. If he begins it well, then he goes on to play well. Should he begin with a mistake, then things continue to go wrong.

And indeed, at Wembley, he made a bad, very early, mistake, though he got away with it. Perhaps his success as a secondary sweeper three days earlier at the Emirates Stadium in the European Cup tie, won 3-0 against Villarreal, had encouraged him so to speak to go on sweeping. Several times, against the Spaniards, he had come fast but judiciously out of his goal after the ball had been played beyond his defenders, to kick clear. Successfully. But on the first occasion that he tried to do so at Wembley, rushing out to his right, the shot flew beyond him and it was only the alacrity of the promising young Kieran Gibbs, dashing back to kick off the line, which prevented Chelsea taking the lead.

So it was that Arsenal were able to go ahead, when a shot by their right-winger, Theo Walcott, was deflected off the hand of the Chelsea left-back, Ashley Cole, to leave his goalkeeper, Petr Cech, wrong footed. Though there were those who thought he could still have made a better effort at saving the ball.

Fabianski, however, would let Chelsea back into the game. When the Blues’ left-winger, Florent Malouda, having one of his better games, beat his man and cut in, Fabianski left fatal space between himself and his near post, allowing Malouda to shoot through it and equalise for Chelsea.

History repeating itself? Back in 1971 when Arsenal, due to bring off the second League and FA Cup double of the century, were playing Liverpool in the final at Wembley, a goalkeeper much more experienced than the 24-year-old Fabianski, Bob Wilson, left just such a space at just such a Wembley end; and Steve Heighway duly exploited it to score. So Arsenal had to wait till extra-time before the powerful right-foot of the idiosyncratic Charlie George won them the Cup.

But alas, Fabianski had one more, this time fatal, error to make. When Didier Drogba, in potent form as he so often has been against the Gunners, came racing through, Fabianski had another rush of blood to the head, came hurtling beyond the penalty box, enabling Drogba to pull the ball wide of him with his right-foot and guide it into the empty net with his left.

History repeating itself? The jinx on Arsenal goalkeepers at a Wembley Cup final first manifested itself as long ago as April 1927. Then the Gunners, radically improved by their talismanic manager, Herbert Chapman, had reached their first Cup final ever, opposed by a competent but not exceptional Welsh team, in Cardiff City. When the Cardiff centre-forward, Hugh Ferguson, shot low for goal, it seemed an easy enough ball for Danny Lewis the Arsenal goalkeeper, himself a Welshman, to pick up. Instead, as he knelt down to take the ball, it slipped through his hands, rolled off his sweater, and made its tantalising way over the line. So it was that Cardiff became the first and so far the only team to take the FA Cup out of England.

The great irony of what happened to Fabianski and Arsenal at Wembley was that it wasn’t he, but Peter Cech of Chelsea, who was expected to be the weak link, the Achilles heel, of his team. For, in the two previous Chelsea games at Stamford Bridge in the previous week, both of which I saw, Cech’s form had been abysmal and potentially costly.

On the previous Saturday, Chelsea has been strolling to a 4-0 victory in the Premier League over Bolton Wanderers. But in the last 20 minutes Cech experienced a personal nightmare, fumbling ball after ball, cross after cross. So much so that by the end, when he did catch a couple of crosses, the fans behind his goal gave him an ironic cheer. He missed a low ball, he missed a high ball. Exploiting a demoralised defence, Bolton, previously so opaque, scored three times and Chelsea just got away with a 4-3 victory. You wondered whether this could be a delayed effect of the shocking cranial injury suffered by Cech, the Czech international ’keeper, last season at Reading, whose left-winger Hunt kicked him on the head. Finally returning after long absence, Cech has worn a protective helmet ever since.

Against Liverpool, in the second leg European quarterfinal, four days later, he was no better, initially, embarrassingly beaten inside his neglected left hand post by a left-footed free-kick from Aurelio. The game degenerated into a defensive fiasco which Liverpool, right at the end, could have won, when Cech fumbled a shot and Michael Essien cleared off the line. But Chelsea don’t trust their reserve ’keeper, Henrique Hilario, so Cech played in the final and, like his team, survived. The goalkeeping culprit was Fabianski.