Wow. As I begin to write this half an hour after the game has finished, I still don’t quite know what to make it. I’m so full of adrenaline after two hours of screaming at the telly, but paradoxically I’m absolutely shattered as well.
First things first, the lineup was pretty much as expected, barring Theo missing out due to the poor fella waking up and feeling under the weather. A shame really, because these are the kind of games where he is relied upon to produce the good – despite him being one of the younger members of a very young outfit, he takes an air of seniority in these games and is virtually guaranteed full a 90 minute stint. So coming for him was an ENGLISHMAN – Mark Randall. As expected, Le Boss resisted the temptation to field Gilberto or Robin, so Song partnered captain Phil at the back, Diarra and Denilson in the middle, and Bendtner and Eduardo up-front.
We started like a house on fire and took a deserved lead five minutes in. Some neat interplay down the right saw Randall set Bendtner free and he floated in a cross from the right. On first look it didn’t seem the best of crosses but it sailed over the defender’s head and to Diaby at the back post. He merely stuck his weaker left-foot out and his sidefoot looped over Brad Friedel and into the top corner. The perfect start.
The lead could have been extended almost immediately as Bendtner cut in from the right and attempted a Bergkamp-esque curler to the far corner which clipped the crossbar and went to safety. To me it looked like a trick of light because it seemed to hang in the air so long that I thought he scuffed it, but having seen the replay I reckon he meant it. Then there was a moment when Diaby played an exquisite ball with the outside of his right-foot in behind the Blackburn defence. Eduardo was lurking with intent on Samba’s shoulder, but the big man managed to poke it back to Friedel at full stretch. However that bode well because not only was Eduardo willing to gamble and make runs in behind the defence, but the midfielders were keen to seek him out. And the exact thing happened from the opposite side of the pitch just before the half-hour mark, this time Denilson threaded the ball through from the right side and it evaded Samba. Eduardo moved in on goal, took a touch to steady himself and coolly slotted his shot past Friedel. An excellent finish, that is precisely why we signed him, to capitalise on defensive errors and finish clinically.
We controlled things for the remainder of the half with Blackburn’s only threat coming from set-pieces. Denilson could have further stretched our lead with a carbon copy of his goal against Newcastle in the first round as he lashed at Bendtner’s lay-off, but the ball skewed wide and over. And then a lifeline for the home side with three minutes remaining – old boy Bentley came infield and played the ball inside Traore, leaving the French full-back in a tangled mess. Matt Derbyshire – who was a yard offside – whipped the ball into the box first time Rocky Santa Claus prodded home from point blank range. At the time it went in I was more furious at Traore’s positional play and the lack of support from Diaby, but Derbyshire was clearly offside. In fact the linesman on that side had an absolute shocker, getting at least three blatant offside decisions wrong – all of them in Blackburn’s favour.
Second-half got underway and it was all Blackburn. Senderos misread a ball over the top and mis-timed his jump so Rocky Santa Claus was through one-on-one. Fabianski advanced as far as he could and as the Paraguayan tried to take it round him he got a vital touch, with Song mopping up heroically.
For some unbeknown reason we were diving rashly into tackles instead of staying on our feet and jockeying the opposition. This lead to umpteen free-kicks in and around our box, and with the quality of Bentley’s delivery they were always going to be a threat. On 57 minutes Bentley whipped a free-kick in and it came off the head of Bendtner but thankfully went over the bar. From the resulting corner they came even closer to scoring as the ball flashed across the face of goal. I have never seen a worse performance at defensive set-pieces from an Arsenal side. Fair enough it was a scratch side, but it really was terrible and you knew that we were gonna concede from one sooner or later. And on the hour we did. Another rash free-kick was given away and Bentley’s free-kick was powerfully headed in by Rocky Santa Claus for his second of the night and fifth in two games. Simply put, it was coming.
A big pointer as to what this Arsenal side (average age: less than 21) was made of would be how they reacted to losing a two-goal lead – do they sit back and collapse? Or pick themselves up and start knocking the ball around again? To their eternal credit they did the latter, but clear cut chances were few and far between. There were, however, a few close shaves. Senderos marginally failed to get on the end of a free-kick where any touch would have sent it past Friedel, whilst Eduardo similarly narrowly missed his header from a Traore cross. Then in the final minute of normal time we had a break down the left with Bendtner again cutting in and shooting. It seemed goalbound but it was blocked. The drama didn’t end there though as deep into injury time in a vain attempt to win the ball Denilson recklessly jumped into a tackle with David Dunn. Having already been booked it was churlish of him to say the least and it sparked a bit of a melee (you wouldn’t expect less against a team containing Robbie Savage). We all expected a second yellow for Denilson but it was worse as he got a straight red, meaning he’ll miss at least three matches.
So into extra-time with only 10 men and the outlook was bleak for the Young Guns. We reverted to a 4-4-1 formation with Bendtner trying to hold the ball up and Eduardo and young Dutchster Nacer Barazite (on for Randall) out wide. It was he who was involved in the next major incident as he went down clutching his shoulder following a good tackle on Dunn. It looked serious as he was carried with an oxygen mask and was later confirmed to be a dislocated shoulder. Ouch. The whole shebang took out about five minutes from the first-half of extra time. In hindsight this interrupted Blackburn’s momentum and it showed. Alex Song (doing his best Kolo Toure impersonation) picked the ball up from the halfway line and drove forward. He found the perfect pass for Eduardo whose first touch was good and second touch excellent as he passed it beyond Friedel into the near corner. Close your eyes, reverse it around and put it on his right-foot and you’ll see that it was a Thierry finish. Somehow, someway, the ten boys were leading against eleven men.
The remainder of the game was a case of holding on for dear life. I screamed blue murder at the telly, mostly at naïve defending and needless conceding of fouls. Blackburn created a fair few chances too, the first coming from a Pedersen free-kick which went narrowly wide. The second chance came when Samba – who had gone up-front – won a knock-down way too easily for my liking and the ball fell to Benni McCarthy. His knockout blow in last year’s FA Cup flashed through my mind but thankfully he flashed his shot wide. Then came Justin Hoyte’s turn to stand up and be counted as he pulled off an amazing double block from Samba and then Pedersen. As we entered the final minute I was desperate for the whistle just so it would end the torture for the kids. Naturally, Blackburn manufactured a final chance and was the closest they had come. Diaby went in high in a challenge but the ref waved play on and Pedersen dinked a ball to the back-post where the beastly Samba rose above his marker to head it flush against the upright. The ball was unconvincingly cleared and moments later we won a free-kick thanks to the decent linesman, Fabianski launched it forwards and the ref ended the pain. Against all odds, the under-9s had pulled it off.
In goal Fabianski shot-stopping was up to scratch but I was far from happy with his work at set-pieces, which is the true mark of a great keeper. Like most foreign keepers he has a tendency to flap at crosses which caused many heart-in-mouth moments. If I’m being completely honest, I’d have to say that the combo of Big Phil and Alex Song was a ticking timebomb. It was the worst of both worlds as Song was frequently outjumped and Phil often outpaced, in the second-half especially where Blackburn played a lot of balls over the top of the defence. However each had good moments individually, none moreso than Song’s clearance early in the second-half when Santa Claus was certain to score. The full-backs showed good spirit in defence but their attacking verve was limited after the first-half. I wasn’t particularly pleased with their positional play, but both exhibited enough pace to make up for that, it should come with experience.
Denilson didn’t have the best of games in the middle, being hassled of the ball a fair amount. On the other hand, Diarra – the official man of the match – shielded the ball fantastically when in possession and showed some incisive dribbling. But he had a tendency to overdo it and instead of playing a simple square pass he would hold the ball for too long, eventually losing it. This became more apparent as the game wore on because he started fantastically, so I guess you could put it down to tiredness. Out wide Randall was pretty anonymous apart from his involvement in the first goal. He looks like a brother of Alex Hleb by the way. On the opposite flank I thought Diaby was magnifique, from the way he took his goal (fortuitous?) to the way he skipped through and around tackles with his power and dribbling ability.
Up-front I actually thought Bendtner had one of his more wasteful games. He showed neat touches but with little end product. Yes I may be being harsh, but the fantastic thing is the level of performance he has brought us to expect. We cannot lose sight of the fact that he is only 19, so to be disappointed in his performance (which was far from bad) may, perversely, be a positive thing. His strike partner was another anonymous one, but that is exactly what we signed him for – to do f*ck all during the game but to put away the chances he gets. And that is why he gets my Top Gun for the day.
In the cold light of day you could say that were horribly naïve to go from 2-0 to 2-2. And at times our defending belied our lack of experience. But when wearing rose-tinted glasses, that victory ranks up with some of the best of them. To produce such fantastic football early on, to be dealt a hammer blow of losing two goals but to still persevere with Wengerball and to show so much fight against a notoriously "passionate" team speaks volumes for the boys. There have been doubts whether the first team could cope with games like these, but now they have probably been banished. But it’s not just the first team who can mix football with fight, because these kids can too. This victory was way more valuable than a stroll in the park, that’s for sure.
I live near Wembley so on my way home from work I always go past Wembley Stadium. To me it looks like a big white elephant because it brings no fond memories with it. Maybe the kids can create the first special memory of this Arsenal generation at the new national stadium? We’re gonna have to negotiate a tough semi first, and like it’s a guarantee we’ll get Barca next in Europe, it’s a guarantee we’ll get Totteringham in the semis. The way these kids play and the spirit they show, if someone asked me whether I’d prefer the FA Cup or the Carling Cup this season, I’d seriously have to consider plumping for the Carling Cup.