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On a Cold-itz night, Arsenal march on with escape from Alcaraz

Arsenal 2 Wigan 0

Alcaraz (og) 42, Bendtner 67

Thanks to an own goal by Antolin Alcaraz and a second half tap-in by Nicklas Bendtner, Arsenal moved one step closer to claiming their first trophy since 2005 with an easy and ultimately comfortable win over Wigan Athletic in their Carling Cup quarter-final match at a snowy and bitterly cold Emirates Stadium.

As has become customary in this season’s competition, Arsène Wenger rotated his squad but nonetheless picked an experienced side to face Wigan. With Wojciech Szczęsny continuing in goal and Emmanuel Eboué returning after the knee ligament injury suffered against Braga proved to be less serious than originally thought, Wenger also gave Bendtner, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott the opportunity to gain additional match fitness. The Arsenal side, unusually lining up 4-4-2, was as follows:

Szczęsny

Eboué – Koscielny – Djourou – Gibbs

Walcott – Denilson – Wilshere – Vela

Bendtner – van Persie

Bendtner sealed victory with this sliding tap-in after 67 minutes (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

There was little to warm fans’ hearts in a sloppy, scrappy opening, as both sides looked as cold as the evening itself. Victor Moses wasted perhaps Wigan’s best chance of the game early on, putting a decent chance into the side netting, but otherwise Szczęsny’s biggest concern all evening was keeping the feeling in his fingers and toes.

Alcaraz headed into his own net from Walcott's corner (image courtesy of wiganlatics.co.uk)

The home side’s passing was not as crisp as one would normally expect, and their finishing was equally awry, with Bendtner and the unimpressive Carlos Vela the prime culprits. Bendtner, unmarked, missed the ball altogether from six yards out with the goal gaping after a van Persie free kick. The Dutch striker, bright and inventive throughout, then put Vela through with a delightful back-flick, only for the Mexican to shoot wastefully wide when one-on-one with Ali al-Habsi.

Without ever putting together a consistent period of pressure, chances continued to come along at regular intervals, only to be squandered. Laurent Koscielny headed over from a corner (this is becoming an irritating habit), Maynor Figueroa appeared to get away a clear handball in the box, and Vela put another headed chance well wide.

It finally took a Wigan defender to show Arsenal’s forwards where the goal was shortly before half-time. Walcott whipped in a teasing corner, Bendtner climbed but could not quite reach the ball, and the unwitting Alcaraz glanced it past al-Habsi.

Bendtner finally scored after missing several good chances (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Wigan continued to offer little coordinated threat in the second half, despite Charles N’Zogbia‘s arrival for the injured Moses, who was stretchered off before half-time with a suspected dislocated shoulder.

It also took Arsenal a while to get going again, but one moment of quality midway through the half was enough to put the tie beyond doubt. They broke forward at pace, and Vela sent in a perfect first-time cross for the sliding Bendtner to bundle in almost on the goalline.

The goal heralded a flurry of substitutions as the snow and wind continued to swirl around the ground, making play increasingly difficult. Van Persie and Jack Wilshere were withdrawn, to be replaced by Craig Eastmond and Samir Nasri. There was still time for Vela to fail with another one-on-one, and Nasri had an effort cleared off the line late on, but Wigan rarely threatened to trouble the scoreboard as the game meandered towards its inevitable conclusion.

Wenger was pleased to have emerged victorious from a match played in difficult wintry conditions:

We did the job on a cold night. We didn’t give chances away and maybe they closed us down well at the start of the game and slowly when we gained a bit more time and space we created chances. Overall, it was a good win with making eight or nine changes.

But he was quick to sound a note of caution to any fans who are now assuming that a Carling Cup victory is inevitable:

You have seen what happened to Manchester United. That can happen to us. We have to accept there is no guarantee, even though you have got to the semi-final, that we win will the trophy. You have to fight to win. Now it is home and away so it will be tough competition to us.

The supporters want more always – and that is completely natural. But we have played 14 consecutive years in the Champions League. Many people would be happy with that. We are not completely happy with that. We want to make our supporters as happy as we can. The major trophies are the Champions League and the Premier League but if we can win this competition then we will take it.

This was as straightforward a victory as Arsenal have enjoyed in the past couple of months, although the performance posed as many questions as it answered. The back four handled what little threat Wigan offered fairly comfortably, and Denilson and Wilshere formed an assured pairing in midfield, with the England youngster impressively picking up a greater share of the creative workload in the absence of captain Cesc Fàbregas, Nasri and Andrey Arshavin. Walcott delivered some precise centres and looks sharper with every passing game, as does van Persie.

But the biggest question marks hang over Bendtner and Vela. The Dane works hard but is too often absent from the point of attack, and his finishing is too often wayward. He is nowhere near justifying the regular first team spot he believes he deserves. Vela, for all his undoubted clever touches, lacks pace and the composure to finish as clinically at 0-0 as he does when 3-0 up. He desperately needs a run in the first team to build confidence, but every time he does feature his work-rate and finishing leave much to be desired. It will be a major surprise if he is still at the club next season, and Bendtner is by no means indispensable either should Wenger choose to pursue another experienced striker in the summer.

With Manchester United‘s surprising 4-0 defeat at West Ham – the score updates from Upton Park elicited the biggest cheers of the night from the Emirates crowd – Arsenal are now favourites to lift the Carling Cup.

Joining the two London sides in tonight’s draw will be the winners of the Birmingham vs Aston Villa and Ipswich vs West Bromwich Albion matches, with the semi-finals being played over  two legs on January 11th/12th and 25th/26th. While it would be extremely premature to look forward to lifting the season’s first domestic trophy at Wembley, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel. The Arsenal fans who braved last night’s Arctic conditions will no doubt have been warmed by that particular thought.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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