Blackburn 2 -3 Arsenal (AET)
Idealism is often misguided, beloved of dreamers but usually defeated by the forces of pragmatism. But Arsene Wenger is a footballing romantic, one whose vision is occasionally decried when a reluctance to compromise can cost them against more prosaic opposition.
Wenger's vindication, then, is as easy on the eye as it is pleasing for the purist. Progress to the Carling Cup semi-finals came courtesy of an illustration of Wenger's idealism, and one accomplished by a team shorn of 16 players. Conservatism normally accompanies the onset of greater age, but Wenger is increasingly adventurous, not least in his team selection.
While Arsenal's encounters with Blackburn are invariably laced with controversy - and this, including the dismissal of Denilson, was no exception - the abiding memories should not be of the predictable flare-up, nor even of a forceful Rovers comeback that brought a brace for Roque Santa Cruz. Instead, aided by Eduardo's calm finishing, they should be of the achievement, and the admirable approach, of a fresh-faced Arsenal side.
Though other managers talk of using the Carling Cup to involve fringe players, Wenger has taken the policy to its logical extreme by omitting almost anyone with any semblance of experience. Arsenal's ingénues responded by playing Blackburn off the pitch for much of the first half.
Only Eduardo could be described as an established player and, at 24, the Croat was the oldest Gunner by two years. The omission of Gilberto and, still more so, Jens Lehmann, reduced the average age dramatically, to 20, revealing Wenger's futuristic blueprint.
It was men against boys and ultimately a triumph for youth, even if a comparative veteran delivered it with the extra-time winner. If their immaturity was apparent in the challenge that led to Denilson's departure, Arsenal played with the zest of a team whose attacking intent has not been nullified by a need to compromise.
Optimism should abound. Ewood Park provides an intimidating enough atmosphere for seasoned professionals and Blackburn, their recent slump notwithstanding, present an awkward test for Premier League regulars. Arsenal's first team only drew there in August. What is effectively their reserves won.
Yet they are recognisably an Arsenal side. This is a club with a shared ethos, a mutual commitment to passing that seems to spread from their marquee players through the ranks at the Emirates Stadium. Overconfidence can be their undoing, and threatened to be, yet it was the assured emergence from the back of Alex Song that led to Eduardo's decisive goal.
Wenger's bold project to win a major trophy without use of his strongest side continues. 'We want to finish the job,' Wenger said. 'We got the taste of the final last year and this shows it was not a coincidence.'
Hughes was impressed, though quick to suggest they had a financial as well as a footballing advantage: 'They're a very athletic team and they can retain possession in tight areas. They will always have quality but these young kids, they don't come cheap. Arsenal have a fantastic squad and they can put out two exceptional teams. It's not a question of reserves.'
The fraught finale, with Christopher Samba heading against the post in the 120th minute, contrasted with the composed opening. Arsenal, intricate and excellent, swift and self-assured, were soon into their stride. There were flicks aplenty from Nicklas Bendtner. Such was the Dane's dexterity at skipping away from his markers that a cliché may need amending. As was evident throughout, he has a great touch for a big man. So, too, does Abou Diaby, the gangly, right-footed Frenchman who makes for a particularly unconventional left-sided midfielder but, at Ewood Park, a very effective one. Lassana Diarra, apparently complaining about his infrequent opportunities, seized this to exert control from the centre circle.
With passing as incisive as their supposed superiors', they were soon rewarded with a lead. Bendtner's deep cross was been misjudged by Steven Reid, a makeshift right-back, but Diaby's response was both delicate and devastating. Meeting it on the half-volley, he guided his left-footed shot over Reid and across Brad Friedel into the far corner.
|“||I believe very strongly in them ”|
|— Arsene Wenger|
Cue a Rovers recovery, a sure sign of spirit. Santa Cruz volleyed in his 10th goal of the season from Matt Derbyshire's cross. The prolific Paraguayan was denied a second by the outstretched arm of Lukasz Fabianski but, when he met David Bentley's free kick with a powerful header, his fifth goal in two games duly arrived.
When Arsenal were reduced to 10 men, as Wenger said: 'It was a mental test and we stood up to it. Denilson lost his nerves a little bit, but we cannot say anything against the red card, but we found the resources to get a third goal. 'I believe very strongly in them. I'm not surprised, today I'm very proud. They are all good Premiership players, their quality is not questionable.'
It is not. Bill Shankly famously remarked that the two best teams on Merseyside were Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.
Judging by the manner in which they dismantled Blackburn, Arsenal's second-string side must rank among the 10 best teams in England.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Nicklas Bendtner - His strike partner decided the tie, but Bendtner illuminated it.
• MOAN OF THE MATCH: Or the Robbie Savage category. Denilson's dismissal was inevitable, given that he had already been cautioned, but Savage's attempts to ensure it were unedifying. For someone who takes his red cards so badly, Savage certainly does his utmost to ensure others suffer a similar fate.
• BLACKBURN VERDICT: Normally one of the most consistent sides around, they have now only won one of the last eight games. An uncharacteristic lack of solidity does not help, and neither does Morten Gamst Pedersen's extended slump in form, but being outmanoeuvred in midfield was the main cause of their difficulties tonight.
• ARSENAL VERDICT: The one department where the development of the next generation is less accelerated is in the heart of the defence, and it was one cause of Blackburn's comeback. Had Kolo Toure and William Gallas played, then Arsenal would surely have won within 90 minutes. The future seems rosier for Arsenal's energetic left-back, Armand Traore, their midfielders and strike duo.