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Second-rate, second-string Arsenal escape with draw against second-tier Leeds

Arsenal 1 Leeds 1

Fàbregas 90 pen; Snodgrass 54 pen

Who says the romance of the FA Cup is dead? In a second half which was as pulsating as it was frustrating for the Premier League side, Cesc Fàbregas came off the bench to spare Arsenal‘s blushes with a last-minute penalty, as Leeds United proved more than a match for a second-rate performance by Arsenal’s second-string. It is not the first time an Arsenal side has struggled against a team containing a Schmeichel and a Bruce …

It came as no surprise that Arsène Wenger elected to make nine changes from the side which started the goalless draw with Manchester City less than 72 hours previously. Only Alex Song and Johan Djourou retained their places as the manager rotated his squad. Nonetheless, this was a strong, highly experienced XI containing nine senior internationals.

Aaron Ramsey, just back from a month’s loan spell at Nottingham Forest as he continues his rehabilitation from injury, and 18-year old Spanish centre back Ignasi Miquel were included on the bench alongside captain Fàbregas and Theo Walcott.

Szczęsny

Eboué – Squillaci – Djourou – Gibbs

Denilson – Song

Rosický

Bendtner – Chamakh – Arshavin

On-loan Sanchez Watt was given special permission to play against his parent club (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Leeds, fifth in the Championship, arrived at the Emirates without a win in their last four games, but bolstered by the presence of on-loan Arsenal teenager Sanchez Watt, a win at Old Trafford at the same stage last season, and the knowledge that they are the only team to have beaten Arsenal at home in the FA Cup under Wenger (in 1997).

As expected, Leeds’ industrious approach combined with an unfamiliar Arsenal side lacking early fluency resulted in a pacy but scrappy opening period in which chances were few and far between.

Both goalkeepers had early opportunities to prove themselves in one-on-ones. First Tomáš Rosický played a perfect through-ball for Andrey Arshavin to race on to but Kasper Schmeichel, in the manner of his father Peter, spread himself wide to smother the Russian’s tame shot. Shortly after, Robert Snodgrass rolled in an inviting ball for Argentine striker Luciano Becchio, but Wojciech Szczęsny was alert to the danger and raced off his line to block.

Just before the half-hour, the game burst into life as the home side visibly moved up a couple of gears. Marouane Chamakh nodded the ball down for Arshavin, who saw his sweet volley saved. Leeds captain Jonny Howson and Becchio then cleared further efforts off the line either side of a Denilson 25-yarder which Schmeichel beat away.

Bendtner had a frustrating day, missing several chances (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The chances kept coming as Arsenal pinned Leeds back into their own half. Arshavin played in Nicklas Bendtner, who was denied by an excellent last-ditch tackle by Alex Bruce (son of Sunderland manager Steve). From the resultant corner, Chamakh soared above everyone to meet the ball powerfully with his head, but straight at the keeper. Bendtner had two further chances, first cutting in from the left before firing over from the edge of the area, then dribbling into the box before drilling a shot from an angle which Schmeichel got down sharply to hold.

Leeds finished the half very much on the back foot but, despite facing six shots on target in the first half, the visitors had largely coped well under increasing pressure. Too often Arsenal lacked either the pace or the width to stretch their defence vertically or horizontally.

Arsenal started the second half better, using the width of the Emirates pitch to greater effect. In the first five minutes of the half, Song, Bendtner and Rosický beat defenders to the by-line to get crosses in.

Denilson's clumsy challenge nearly condemned Arsenal to defeat (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But the gathering momentum vanished in a moment of stupidity from Denilson. A rare attack by Leeds saw Max-Alain Gradel surge into the box, where the Brazilian midfielder’s clumsily outstretched leg upended him. Robert Snodgrass struck the penalty hard but too close to Szczęsny, who got a touch on it but could not prevent the ball squeezing over the line.

Wenger’s response was immediate, sending on Fàbregas for Song as Arsenal surged forward. But they were also grateful to Szczęsny, who kept them in the tie with a fine reaction save from Becchio’s point-blank header.

Walcott arrived in place of Chamakh for the final quarter of the game, with Arshavin switching to the left and Bendtner moving into the centre as both sides continued to create chances. Snodgrass whistled a free kick just wide with Szczęsny beaten, while Walcott wasted a good position with an errant shot.

As time marched on, Leeds gradually retreated closer to their own goal, inviting pressure onto themselves as Arsenal’s urgency turned to desperation. Carlos Vela replaced a tiring Rosický. Bendtner headed a free kick over from ten yards. Arshavin’s pile-driver was blocked by Andy O’Brien. The Russian then played in Walcott over the top, and the England winger opted to shoot early but straight into Schmeichel’s hands.

A grandstand finish was inevitable, but nobody could have predicted the drama that was to unfold in the closing moments of the match.

With two minutes of normal time remaining, Walcott went down in the box in a challenge with Paul Connolly which looked marginal, but fair. (Walcott later admitted he had dived.) Referee Phil Dowd hesitated, then signalled for a penalty but then, after consultation with his assistant, awarded a Leeds free kick for an offside against Bendtner which occurred after the challenge. Presumably Dowd himself believed there had been no foul but initially thought the flag had been raised to indicate a penalty rather than offside. If so, then his ultimate decision was correct and the incident was more confusing than it was controversial.

Fàbregas made no mistake from the spot to earn a replay (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

We were still absorbing what had happened when, seconds after play restarted, Walcott raced clear and had his shirt tugged by Ben Parker. This time, even though Walcott stumbled on for a few paces, the penalty award was clear-cut. Fàbregas stepped up and, as Schmeichel dived to his right, sent the ball into the exact space the keeper had just vacated. Cool as you like.

The action was far from over, however. With the two legs of the Carling Cup semi-final upcoming, the last thing Arsenal needed was a replay, and with parity restored they battered Leeds in the five remaining minutes of added-on time. Bendtner shinned yet another chance wide, putting the exclamation point on a poor performance, and Denilson’s 20-yard rocket brought the best save of the match from Schmeichel as he dived full stretch to turn the ball behind.

It was too little too late, however, and a replay at Elland Road was the very least Leeds deserved for their dogged performance.

After the match, a relieved Arsène Wenger acknowledged how difficult Leeds had made the game for his side:

I must say at first that it was a very difficult game because it was a real Cup game and Leeds were up for it. They played well. It was the kind of game where you felt that it was important not to go 1-0 down. When we were 1-0 down I felt that Wojciech [Szczęsny] kept us in the game with a good save on the header [from Becchio]. We looked like we would come back but we were short of time and it was important to keep the momentum and not to go out today because that would have been a shocker.

Even when we equalised we still had three chances at 1-1 but we couldn’t take them. At least we are still in the Cup and hopefully we can do it at Leeds.

He had the following to say about Leeds:

We knew before the game that Leeds went to Old Trafford last year and won, and they had a draw at Tottenham. Overall this team have belief in that competition, from last year certainly. They did very well, very aggressive but in a good way, not a negative way, they closed us down everywhere and we had problems to pass through their lines. They were dangerous as well and it was important for us not to give a goal away, but we did.

And at least he was in jovial mood when asked about the penalty/offside incident:

I will be faithful to my reputation: I did not see the first one! The second one looked to be a penalty because he pulled Theo back. The first one was impossible to see from the bench.

While the disjointed nature of the first half hour was understandable given the second-string nature of today’s side, too many of Arsenal’s experienced hands in the front six had bad days in the office to merit anything more than a draw. Chamakh lacked regular service in dangerous areas, but also appeared to be missing a bit of zip in his movement. Rosický’s influence as a creative force was minimal, and he has faded badly after some promising early season showings. Arshavin, too, started the game hesitantly, and by the end both his fitness and confidence were evidently shot. Denilson, as is too often the case, was quietly effective in possession and hit two fine shots but was a liability defensively. And Bendtner had one of those days where he couldn’t have hit the proverbial cow’s posterior with a banjo.

In the first half, the front six lacked width; in the second, craft and composure in front of goal. On this showing, the positions of Robin van Persie, Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri and Walcott as first-team regulars are more secure than ever.

Defensively, things looked brighter. Szczęsny proved his worth in both one-on-one and point-blank situations. Gibbs never looked anything other than assured. And Djourou looked thoroughly commanding at the heart of defence – while Sébastien Squillaci struggled at times with Becchio, the Swiss defender had him in his pocket throughout.

Arsenal’s performance was as poor as Leeds’ was excellent, and should not detract in any way from it. But the Gunners live to fight another day, and for now that is enough. Now it’s on to Portman Road to take on a Roy Keane-less Ipswich Town on Wednesday.

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

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