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If Arsenal didn't have a mental barrier before the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham, they'll have one now

In the build up to Sunday’s Carling Cup final, the Sunday Telegraph published a fascinating interview with Jacques Crevoisier, the psychologist who profiles Arsenal’s young players. In it, the Frenchman was adamant that all charges of psychological weakness were baseless, insisting: “I’ve tested all the young Arsenal players and they were outstanding psychologically. A mental barrier? For me, the problem is not there”. This morning it is hard to reconcile his view with the empirical evidence offered at Wembley.

For all of Crevoisier’s claims to the contrary, interviews with some of Arsene Wenger’s key players prior to Sunday’s final spoke of an underlying problem. Captain Cesc Fabregas admitted that winning the Carling Cup would act as a way of “mentally unblocking” his team, while Bacary Sagna admitted: “At some stage, when we get close to winning something, we get scared. We stop playing. We are just waiting for the result to happen and this is not a good way.” Can you imagine Manchester United or Chelsea betraying such nerves prior to a final?

If, as Crevoisier insisted, Arsenal didn’t have a mental barrier before, then they surely will do now. The history of sport is littered with ‘chokes’, from Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters to Jimmy White’s World Championship failure in 1994 to AC Milan’s capitulation to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final, and the common theme is their apparent superiority to their respective opponents. Norman blew a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo on the final day at Augusta, despite shooting a course record 63 three days prior. White needed just a straightforward black in the deciding frame to beat Stephen Hendry, but blew it. Milan had dominated Liverpool, racing into a three-goal lead, but somehow collapsed.

Arsenal are in danger of being remembered in the same way. Already this season Arsene Wenger’s men have thrown away a two-goal half-time advantage against Tottenham to lose 3-2 at the Emirates, and blown a four-goal lead at Newcastle (albeit with the help of some highly-questionable officiating). This is a team that, for all its undoubted talent and desire, is starting to make snatching defeat from the jaws of victory a worrying habit. And the manner of Sunday’s defeat to an inferior Birmingham side will haunt them.

Wenger’s side never truly hit their stride at Wembley, and while Birmingham deserve great credit for their simple but impeccably implemented tactics, in truth Arsenal should have had enough reserves of talent to prevail. There were mitigating circumstances – what team wouldn’t wouldn’t miss Fabregas and the pace of Theo Walcott on a large Wembley pitch – but Arsenal were handed a series of lifelines, yet still could not pull the trigger.

Within two minutes Wojciech Szczesny should have been sent off for hauling down a clearly onside Lee Bowyer in the area, but an unforgivable bit of officiating afforded Arsenal a let off. Not long after handing his side the lead, Nikola Zigic hesitated fatally and wasted a big opportunity to double Birmingham’s lead. And in the second half Keith Fahey hit the inside of the post with a snapshot that Szczesny was nowhere near. Against the biggest and best, you do not tend to get away with spurning such chances, but Arsenal are the exception to the rule.

Wenger’s side may have created more opportunities in the second half than their opponents, but they were a shadow of the side that beat Barcelona two weeks ago. Since that memorable night at the Emirates, they have drawn with Leyton Orient after the concession of a last-minute equaliser, and now gifted Birmingham the Carling Cup with the sort of miserable, desperate error that will be etched in the annals of cup final history  for ever more. The cliche ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ has never seemed more apt.

Wenger is now facing perhaps the sternest test of his Arsenal reign, all during a frenetic period of fixtures when his side’s season could so easily collapse. His team were garlanded in the wake of their victory over Barcelona, and rightly so, and Sunday’s defeat to Birmingham does not change the fact that this young side is starting to mature into a major force. But Wenger must act to ensure that the defeat does not irrevocably damage a season that has promised so much for so long.

Mental block or not, Arsenal must dig deep and find the reserves of resilience that Crevoisier is so adamant they possess. Only then will they be able to begin to forget the nightmare of Wembley.