Catastrophe-prone Arsenal escaped most damaging defeat


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Of all the indignities suffered by Arsenal during their flawed quest to win another trophy, this was very nearly the worst. Eight minutes away from losing their FA Cup semi-final to Wigan – defending champions yet a Championship club - the team who not long ago were leading the Premier League needed a late goal from Per Mertesacker and then a nervy win in a penalty shoot-out to ensure a return to Wembley for the final on May 17. Arsene Wenger's reaction said it all as he turned and departed down the tunnel without so much as a celebration. This did not really deserve one.

The post-2005 incarnation of Arsenal has catastrophe coded deep in its genetic make-up but they avoided it here, just. Poor for most of the match, they now limp on to face either Hull City or Sheffield United in a final that on this evidence could be another afternoon of frayed nerves. Arsenal's annual spring slump has been particularly pronounced this year and Wenger, with a new contract as yet unsigned, may wonder if he can coax a better performance from these players after their unconvincing form continued.

If a League Cup final defeat to Alex McLeish's Birmingham at Wembley in 2011 was the prevailing low point of Arsenal's enduring trophy disappointment then this return to the national stadium had the potential to exceed it. Another failure - weighed down by all those that have preceded it, year on year – could well have made Wenger's position untenable. On a penalty shoot-out did one of England's great managerial reigns potentially rest.

When Santi Cazorla struck his effort past Scott Carson for a 4-2 win on spot-kicks, there was above all a sense of relief. Relief in the Arsenal ranks that another trophy has not been snatched away from this underachieving club, and relief that if this does prove to be Wenger's last season in charge, it may yet end on a positive note. Certainly the Frenchman was aware of what a defeat would have represented, telling the press: “It's important that mentally we didn’t go out tonight. The consequences of going out tonight were quite worrying.”

Yaya Sanogo, yet to score a goal for Arsenal, added an FA Cup semi-final to an FA Cup quarter-final and matches against Liverpool and Bayern Munich as the only four games he has started for the club, confirming a rather bizarre status as a big-game player who is really anything but. At least the Frenchman was willing throughout – even if he suffered from a lack of quality - but after he nodded a superb early chance straight at Scott Carson, Arsenal offered little in terms of inspiration.

All too often, the returning Aaron Ramsey looked in front of him and saw nothing. Not an Arsenal player making a run; not a team-mate in space. The tortuous, repetitious put-put-put of sideways passes from Mikel Arteta gave this interminable match the feeling of a David Peace novel, complete with the torment of the soul.

It was not until Sanogo was joined in attack by Olivier Giroud on 68 minutes that, bar the odd bright moment from the penetrative Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal looked anything other than uninspired. Indeed, Wigan deservedly took the lead just five minutes before when Jordi Gomez struck the ball home from the penalty spot after Per Mertesacker had clumsily fouled Callum McManaman.

A timid performance suddenly transformed on 82 minutes when Mertesacker turned the ball in from close range after Sanogo had hooked it back into the box. Arsenal fans roared with a gusto not seen all afternoon, which was strange as you'd imagine they would be enjoying a rare trip to this stadium. After all, it was seasoned Wembley veterans Wigan, reigning FA Cup winners, who had enjoyed three previous visits to Arsenal's two.

A record-equalling 27th FA Cup semi-final was a prolonged exercise in frustration for Arsenal, and Wenger was even assailed with deafening boos from the massed red ranks when pulling Lukas Podolski for Giroud. Puzzlingly so, as the German offered little to his team. Wigan by contrast performed stoutly thanks to the will and effort of the collective, though McManaman was consistently dangerous when embarking on solo runs too. Fewer teams can have made a more valiant defence of a trophy no one expected them to retain.

“We are walking out of Wembley on paper as losers, but in our own minds as winners,” said Uwe Rosler. “I couldn't ask for anything more. We forced Arsenal to play long in the second half, which isn't usually how they play, so all credit to my boys.” There was, however, one big regret for Wigan's manager: “I'm a German, so [I thought] we don't need to practice penalties. But if we are back in May, I promise you: we will practice penalties.”

Arsenal could have won the game in extra-time when Oxlade-Chamberlain cannoned one off the bar but a victory on penalties proved satisfactory, even if the sight of players celebrating their hugely unconvincing win with a cringe-inducing self-taken photograph (this writer refuses to use the popular term, which is so symbolic of our self-indulgent age) was a jarring one. As Roy Keane said in the TV studio: “These Arsenal players need a reality check. They're celebrating beating a Championship team.”

They may have more legitimate reason to crack a grin for the cameras at the end of the final, but only after flirting so outrageously with disaster once again.

By Tom Adams - follow on Twitter @tomEurosport

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