Saturday, January 8, 2011
Fabregas keeps wasteful Gunners alive
Tom Adams, Emirates Stadium
It may be six and a half long years since Leeds United were evicted from the top flight, final notices and unpaid bills swirling around their heads, but they are making a habit of troubling those clubs currently housed in the English elite.
• Walcott apologises for dive
• Arsenal 1-1 Leeds United
Just 12 months after inflicting a first third-round exit since 1984 on Manchester United, they were so close to orchestrating another memorable giant-killing over Arsenal before Cesc Fabregas converted a penalty in the final minute, ensuring a replay at Elland Road and preventing a first home FA Cup defeat for Arsene Wenger since 1997.
The opponents that day were Leeds, who have experienced plenty of highs and lows in the intervening years, from Champions League semi-finals to League One. However, currently occupying a play-off spot in the Championship, Leeds are in their most favourable position since the chronic overspending and mismanagement of the Peter Ridsdale era saw them plummet through the leagues, shedding a plethora of star players.
Under Simon Grayson, they are a dangerous outfit - bar Watford, the highest scorers of any of England's 92 clubs - and led in defence by the magnificent Andy O'Brien, they so nearly dealt a savage blow to Arsenal's cup ambitions this season.
Though questions will be asked of Wenger's team selection, having made nine changes from the side that drew 0-0 with Manchester City in midweek, his team should easily have been capable of winning the game. Indeed, in a departure from recent seasons in the competition, the only nod to the youth academy was the presence of young Spaniard Ignasi Miquel on the bench alongside Aaron Ramsey, returned to the club following a loan spell at Nottingham Forest which completed his rehabilitation from a horrendous injury. The only raw Arsenal talent on display was on the opposing side - loan forward Sanchez Watt making a surprise start against his parent club.
Consequently, it was not Wenger who almost threw Arsenal's cup participation away this season, but their underperforming players, most notably Denilson, who was culpable for a clumsy challenge on Max Gradel that allowed Robert Snodgrass to score from the spot. Meanwhile, Nicklas Bendtner, Andrei Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh all disappointed in attack and their malaise almost contributed to another crushing disappointment in the recent history of Arsenal's participation in the competition. As Wenger said: "It would have been a shocker. [A replay] is not exactly the wish I had before the game, but it was the second worst we could have had."
A shocker because, of course, Arsenal and the FA Cup share a special history. Winners for the first time in 1930 - when the great Herbert Chapman, under the shadow of the Graf Zeppelin, defeated his former club Huddersfield to claim his first trophy at the club - their legacy contains Charlie George's goal to clinch the Double in 1971, the five-minute final against Manchester United in 1979 and the "it's only Ray Parlour" moment in 2002. Such rich success has only made it even more galling that in recent seasons, Wenger has seemed to treat the competition as an unwelcome distraction, rather than an integral part of the club's identity.
Weakened sides suffered defeats at the hands of Bolton in 2006 and Blackburn in 2007, Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore were in the side defeated 4-0 by Manchester United in 2008 and last year's participation ended when a team including Francis Coquelin, Craig Eastmond and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas succumbed to a worryingly inevitable 3-1 defeat at Stoke City. Wenger, it is fair to say, has failed to pay due deference to the cup, but on Saturday he picked a team more than strong enough to win the game. He can hardly be blamed for the fact that they failed to do so.
Familiar faults afflicted his side in the first half. Tomas Rosicky prised open the Leeds defence with a wonderful pass, only for Andrei Arshavin to appear hesitant when running through on goal, allowing Kasper Schmeichel to make a fine save at his feet. Jonathan Howson cleared off the line from Sebastien Squillaci's header and Bendtner, Chamakh and Arshavin all wasted further chances.
But despite their current status, and chants of "we're not famous any more", Leeds are a club with their own rich history and refused to willingly accept the role of underdogs. The Yorkshire club enjoyed their own purple patch in the FA Cup in the early 1970s under the revered Don Revie, but have not returned to the final since, with financial trauma precluding dreams of doing so again in recent years. But here, in the second half, was a moment to be proud of at the home of one of English football's elite.
Max Gradel was the instigator, ducking into the box and drawing a careless challenge from Denilson. Snodgrass provided the finish from 12 yards, although Szczesny did get a hand to the ball. Cue frenzied celebrations among the travelling support.
Wenger's response was immediate, and underlined his commitment to the competition, as he brought captain Cesc Fabregas from the bench in place of Song. Arsenal quickly attempted to lay siege to the Leeds goal, but it was the visitors from the Championship who almost extended their lead after 64 minutes when Becchio climbed to meet a Snodgrass corner and forced Szczesny into a wonderful reflex save. Wenger said the young Pole "kept us in the game" with his stop.
Then, with just minutes remaining, intense drama, typical of the competition, ensued. Arsenal thought they had been awarded a penalty when Walcott fell to ground, only for the linesman to flag for offside. Wenger said of the contentious incident: "I will stay truthful to my reputation and say I did not see it!" However, with just a minute remaining, Ben Parker was found guilty of pulling Walcott's shirt and a penalty was awarded. Fabregas, getting his underperforming team-mates out of a considerable hole, tucked the spot-kick away.
Arsenal could have won it in injury time. Denilson was denied by a fantastic save from Schmeichel while, in a fitting demonstration of why Arsenal had failed to secure an expected victory, Bendtner wasted two superb chances. The Gunners did enough to avoid only a second defeat to lower league opposition in 41 games under Wenger, but only just, and no thanks to the outer reaches of their squad. They will have to improve for their trip to Yorkshire. Grayson warned: "In ten days, we will approach with the same philosophy and try and win the game."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Andy O'Brien: The defender completed his permanent transfer to Elland Road this week and demonstrated just why Simon Grayson has placed such faith in him. In a commanding performance, O'Brien's two standout moments were a header to take the ball away from Chamakh and a challenge to prevent Walcott scoring from close range.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Though dominant, as usual, in terms of possession and chances created, the Gunners wasted all manner of chances. Though Kasper Schmeichel was inspired in goal for Leeds, Arsenal were left to lament their inability to score, and now face a replay in an already congested fixture calendar.
LEEDS VERDICT: Grayson's side played to their strengths - attempting to deny Arsenal space, hitting on the break - and did so superbly. With a Bruce and a Schmeichel instrumental, as well as O'Brien, Wenger admitted he was having flashbacks to games against Manchester United. He said: "Maybe these two names want to make my life difficult forever!"
ANFIELD ANGST: Wenger shared his view on the news filtering through before kick-off that Roy Hodgson had been ushered out of Liverpool. "I think personally I am shocked, because personally I rate Roy Hodgson as a great manager," he said. "It puts the job into perspective because he was manager of the year in July. It shows you how quickly we can lose our qualities. Our job suffers today."