The week in numbers: w/e 25/3/12

Woods won his first PGA title in over 2½ years (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

924Tiger Woods ended his winless streak of 924 days on the US PGA Tour by claiming a five-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

62 – Age of two-time world darts champion John ‘Jocky’ Wilson, who died on Saturday night two days after his birthday. The Scotsman won the world title in 1982 and 1989.

156 – South Africa’s Alviro Petersen scored an 8½-hour 156 as South Africa took control of the third and final Test in Wellington. They currently lead the series over New Zealand 1-0. Read more of this post

The legend makes a fairy-tale return as Henry steals the limelight

Arsenal 1 Leeds 0

Henry 78

Leeds fans must be sick of the sight of Thierry Henry. The last time he lined up against them for Arsenal in April 2004 he put four goals past them in a 5-0 demolition, and they were subsequently relegated from the Premier League. In his return to the Emirates Stadium at the age of 34, Henry came off the bench to illuminate a lacklustre game with a trademark finish to send Arsenal into the fourth round of the FA Cup at Leeds’ expense. The truly great players write their own scripts, and no other player in Arsenal’s history is as comfortable in the limelight as their all-time leading goalscorer.

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My sporting month: January 2012

A new year brings with it the start of the season for many sports which have been in hibernation over the past couple of months. For winter sports, it sees the competition hotting up as their calendars pass the midway point or, in some cases, the road to the end-of-season playoffs.

With both the London Olympics and football’s European Championships upcoming this summer, 2012 looks set to be a bumper year for all sports fans. And January gets things off to a fast start with a post-Christmas cracker of a schedule. Here is a personal list of my top five events for the coming month.

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Arsenal too good for Leeds in thrilling Cup replay

Leeds 1 Arsenal 3

Johnson 37; Nasri 5, Sagna 35, van Persie 76

Arsenal raced out of the blocks at Elland Road and quickly took command of this FA Cup third round replay, and despite a wonder goal from Leeds’ Bradley Johnson they eased to a well-deserved and ultimately comfortable win courtesy of first half goals by Samir Nasri and Bacary Sagna, and Robin van Persie‘s late header.

Arsène Wenger made six changes from the side which beat West Ham on Saturday, but more importantly this was a notably stronger side than the one which barely escaped with a draw in the original game against Leeds, with Emmanuel Eboué, Sébastien Squillaci and Tomáš Rosický replaced by Sagna, Laurent Koscielny and Nasri.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Gibbs

Denilson – Song

Nasri

Bendtner – Chamakh – Arshavin

Nasri opened the scoring inside five minutes (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Leeds, cheered on by a rumbustious sell-out Elland Road crowd, started with the same energy with which they had played at the Emirates, but the visitors stunned them inside five minutes with a typically neat Arsenal goal. Crisp, quick interplay involving Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin set up Nasri between two defenders, and the French international skipped into the area before coolly sliding the ball past Kasper Schmeichel.

Arsenal continued to press as they sought a second goal, and Leeds were grateful to Schmeichel for keeping them in the game. First he produced a wonderful one-handed stop as Chamakh rose to meet a Nasri free kick with a powerful header, then he had to react smartly to deal with a low, swerving drive by Arshavin.

The Russian, the target of criticism from many fans this season for several lacklustre and lackadaisical performances, looked very much in the mood early on, often drifting inside to receive the ball, and having three shots in the first half hour.

Sagna doubled Arsenal's lead with a net-bursting strike (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Chances continued to rain down on Schmeichel’s goal as Leeds struggled to gain a foothold. A great ball from Koscielny sent Sagna galloping down the right at pace. Passing up the chance to shoot, he rolled an inviting ball across goal, but a sliding Nicklas Bendtner was unable to get a touch. Shortly after, he did not hesitate with a second opportunity. Another incisive attack seemed to have broken down after Bendtner’s heavy touch, but the ball fell to the full back in the corner of the area, and this time he had no hesitation rifling in a fierce shot which an unsighted Schemichel could only help into the net. A stunning strike.

Arsenal’s two-goal advantage lasted barely two minutes as Leeds replied with an even better goal eight minutes before half-time. Arshavin might have been fouled by Robert Snodgrass in the build-up – it looked fair enough to me – but there was no arguing with the 30-yard screamer from the left foot of Bradley Johnson which gave Wojciech Szczęsny no chance as it arrowed into the top right-hand corner. You will not see a better long-range strike all season.

Kasper Schmeichel kept Leeds in the game with several fine saves (image courtesy of leedsunited.com)

The goal was Leeds’ only meaningful shot of the half, but it lifted both their players and fans, and helped even up the game somewhat. Nonetheless Schmeichel twice had to be on his mettle in the opening moments of the second half, blocking an angled shot from Alex Song and stopping a Nasri free kick which dipped over the defensive wall.

Arshavin, industrious and willing but lacking a combination of luck and composure, was denied by a last-ditch sliding tackle by Snodgrass before lifting another chance twenty rows back into the stand behind Schmeichel’s goal. But Leeds were also starting to carve out half-chances. Eddie Paynter narrowly missed one cross, and his replacement Davide Somma deflected another off his thigh but harmlessly wide.

Van Persie's header ended the game as a contest (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Responding to the growing home threat, Wenger sent on Robin van Persie and Cesc Fàbregas for Chamakh and the luckless Arshavin. The changes yielded immediate dividends. A surging run by Fàbregas earned a free kick almost 30 yards out which he sent narrowly wide. Then the captain set Bendtner free down the right flank, and the Danish striker curled in a deliciously inviting cross which van Persie, timing both his run into the box and his jump perfectly, met with a powerful header from five yards.

The goal effectively finished the match as a contest, and the visitors were rarely troubled in closing out the win. Although Arsenal had dominated for long spells at both ends of the game, Leeds had fully played their part in what had been a pulsating tie and a great advertisement for the FA Cup.

No surprise, then, that Wenger was pleased with both the result and the performance after the game:

We had both a good result and a good performance. We had quality in our attitude, spirit and focus. We started strongly and we played the football we like to play for the best part of the game. Leeds never gave up but we looked just too strong tonight for them. I think we got a warning in the first game and we [learnt] the lesson.

Although he recognised the outstanding contribution of Samir Nasri, he was keen to stress the overall quality of the team:

Samir played well tonight but the whole team played well and it’s difficult to single one player out. Everybody had a good performance.

Finally, he had these words of consolation for his Leeds counterpart Simon Grayson:

You have to give him credit for the way his team behaved in the two games. I think he organises them well, they have belief and when you look at what they produced I think they have a good chance to get into the [Championship] play-offs. We miss Leeds in the Premier League.

This was Arsenal’s second strong team performance in a row, following on from the 3-0 win at Upton Park. The back four were solid all night against a Leeds team who were always willing to commit bodies forward in attack. Song and Denilson were content to sit deep for the most part, and consequently controlled the middle of the park effectively, while the front four – both before and after the second half substitutions – consistently moved the ball quickly and cleverly, leaving Leeds chasing shadows for much of the game. Arshavin left his shooting boots at home, but his work-rate was much improved. Chamakh looked sharper than he has in recent weeks, although he remains short of his early season form. Nasri bossed the game in the first half, and Bendtner’s hard work throughout was rewarded by his role in the final goal. And Fàbregas and van Persie both made telling contributions off the bench. For once, even the most critical of Arsenal fans can have little to complain about.

Arsenal’s reward is a fourth round tie at home to Huddersfield on Sunday 30th, one of four straight games at the Emirates. Next up is Saturday’s game against Wigan, before the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Ipswich, in which Arsenal will need another performance like tonight’s if they are to overturn a 1-0 deficit and earn a trip to Wembley at the end of next month in pursuit of this season’s first trophy. For now, two bad games in a row have been followed by two good ones. Watching Arsenal can be frustrating at times, but it is never dull.

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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