Arsene Wenger has warned his Arsenal stars to heed the lessons of last season’s narrow escape at Wembley when the holders face Reading in the FA Cup semi-finals in London today.
Wenger’s side head back to Wembley as firm favorites to see off the Championship strugglers and advance to a second successive FA Cup final.
Arsenal have risen to second in the English Premier League after reeling off eight consecutive victories, a powerful run that has stretched to 11 wins from 12 games in all competitions.
By contrast, Reading, languishing 18th in the second tier, are not mathematically certain of avoiding relegation to League One following a miserable run of one win in their past 10 matches.
The Royals have failed to win any of their five matches since beating Bradford City in an FA Cup quarter-final replay, but Wenger has been scarred by several of Arsenal’s recent encounters with lower-league teams and is determined to ensure the Gunners do not underestimate Steve Clarke’s men.
To drive home the point, he recalled last season’s FA Cup semi-final against second-tier Wigan Athletic, in which Arsenal fell behind and only equalized in the 82nd minute, before eventually securing a barely-deserved victory in a penalty shoot-out.
“We know that it [the semi-final] is always tricky. We have learned from Wigan last year,” Wenger said. “The urgency level will be quite high in our team. Reading have many players who have the experience in the Premier League. They have a very efficient style, who go a lot for crosses, so for us they can be a danger going forward.”
Wenger has a near full-strength side to choose from today, with England midfielder Jack Wilshere having returned to full fitness.
“Everybody feels that it is difficult to get in the team, all the players have top, top quality,” Wenger said. “They have to accept it and to respect the decision, that is what you want from the players.”
However, although everything has been going swimmingly for Arsenal of late, Wenger was in a rather irritable mood in his pre-match press conference ahead of the Reading tie.
He was especially irked by questions about Juergen Klopp, the Borussia Dortmund coach who has been linked with Wenger’s job in the past and is set to leave the German club at the end of the season.
“I’m not an agency to place managers, and I like every manager and respect everybody, but I find that circus a bit ridiculous,” Wenger said.
Asked whether Klopp, reported to be a potential Manchester City target, would suit Arsenal in the future, Wenger snapped: “I already answered this question.”
Wenger was also vexed by the decision to schedule Chelsea’s crucial English Premier League clash with Manchester United at almost the same time as his club’s meeting with Reading.
“I am a bit surprised that a [Premier League] game of the same stature is played at the same time. There is a bit of conflict there that is difficult to understand,” Wenger said. “Something should be done about it. You would like it [the FA Cup] to be the unique competition, especially a semi-final and a final. You would want it not to conflict with other competitions.”
While Arsenal’s internationals can afford to take a semi-final in their stride, it may be slightly harder for Reading’s journeymen to avoid being star-struck on the big stage.
It has been 88 years since the Royals last reached the FA Cup semi-finals and they have never appeared in the final, but former West Bromwich Albion boss Clarke, who won the FA Cup as a Chelsea player, said: “You can’t go to Wembley and play the occasion.”
“The supporters can go and enjoy the day, that’s their little reward for a Cup run,” he said. “For us, it is to go there with a mentality that we are there to do a job and if we do that right we can go through.”
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