(Aggregate 2-2 - Wigan win on away goals rule)
By Richard Clarke
A goal from Jason Roberts just 65 seconds from the end of extra-time broke Arsenal hearts in the Carling Cup Semi-Final second leg at Highbury on Tuesday night.
Arsène Wenger's side seemed set for their first Final in this competition for 13 years.
They trailed 1-0 from the first leg and matters looked bleak when Jose Antonio Reyes missed a first-half penalty.
However Thierry Henry nodded home from close range just past the hour and, three minutes into the second half of extra time, Robin van Persie steered home a superb free-kick.
With the seconds ticking away, Arsenal were going through. But the tie would turnaround if Wigan could net as away goals counted double at the end of 120 minutes.
In one of their final attacks, Roberts capitalised on confusion between Sol Campbell and Philippe Senderos to thump home from close range. It was one of those jaw-dropping reversals of fortune that only football can create.
Few neutrals would begrudge Wigan their Cup Final but it was hard on Arsenal all the same.
Paul Jewell's fairytale season goes on, Arsène Wenger's side must lick their wounds before Saturday's tough-looking trip to Bolton in the FA Cup Fourth Round.
On the eve of this game, the manager had announced a virtually full-strength squad on Arsenal.com. Naturally the team was strong too.
The only player rested was Jens Lehmann as Manuel Almunia continued his run in this competition. There were still gaps in the squad though. Ashley Cole (thigh), Gael Clichy (foot) and Pascal Cygan (hamstring) were injured while Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor are at the African Nations Cup.
Francesc Fabregas started a three-game suspension after this dismissal at Everton on Saturday. That allowed Abou Diaby to make his first start for the Club alongside Gilberto in central midfield. Reyes and Alexander Hleb were employed on the flanks with Dennis Bergkamp paired with Henry up front. Fit again Van Persie returned from injury to bolster the front line. Clearly, Wenger had set up his side to score goals.
The start of the game was full of wasted energy. Both sides were active yet slightly edgy, it meant a number of enterprising, quick breaks ended in misplaced final passes.
The first real opportunity came after 13 minutes when Roberts turned Senderos and Alan Mahon fired straight at Almunia. Shortly afterwards Henry sprinted down the left and cut the ball back for Hleb to send a deflected effort over the bar.
The chance heralded a spell of Arsenal pressure. That, in turn, led to the penalty. Stephane Henchoz handled as Henry tried to clip the ball across to the unmarked Bergkamp in the area.
Strangely, Reyes took it and Pollitt dived full length to his left to divert the ball around the post. To be honest, there was little wrong with the Spaniard's spot kick, the save was simply superb.
In the minutes that followed Pollitt then stopped long-range efforts from Bergkamp and Henry.
You started to fear this might not be Arsenal's night.
The home side were still on top and raiding forward at pace. Ten minutes before the interval, Henry scampered through on the left, sprinted clear of his marker but Pollitt again saved with his legs.
Despite all that Arsenal pressure, Wigan forced the best chances of the half just before the break. First, Almunia spilled the ball and Gary Teale's effort was hacked away from a crowded area. Then, in injury time, Jimmy Bullard curled a pass into the path of Roberts and Almunia thrust up a strong hand to divert the ball past the post.
From the corner, Scharner's header was cleared off the line. Referee Phil Dowd blew for half time before immediately afterwards.
Wenger replaced Diaby with Mathieu Flamini before the restart. Within a couple of minutes, Henry's angled shot was half-saved by Pollitt and the Wigan defence had time to mop up the danger.
However, this would not usher in the rush hour for a half of one-way traffic. As they have proved all season, Wigan are made of stern stuff. Teale crossed from the right and Roberts rose at the near post to nod the ball a few feet over the bar. An excellent chance.
The game was opening up fast. In the 53rd minute, Reyes sent Henry through on the right but Pollitt, once again, got enough on his shot and allowed his defenders sufficient time to clear.
Shortly afterwards the same Arsenal duo combined at a corner but the Frenchman's goalbound drive was charged down.
At this point the early inkling that things were not going Arsenal's way was starting to gnaw away.
But then the home side finally found the net.
Hleb fed Gilbert who reached the byline and sent a high cross into the six-yard box and Henry nodded home from point-blank range. After scoring, the Frenchman ran immediately to the 18-year-old rookie defender who had supplied the cross. That tells you everything about the assist on this crucial, crucial goal.
Arsenal still had to be wary. By this time, Jewell had brought on two pairs for fresh legs to assist their ever-willing runners. One of the substitutes, Andreas Johansson, nodded goalwards soon after and Almunia needed safe hands to clutch the ball on the line.
If anything, Wigan improved after the goal. They certainly pushed Arsenal back and, 12 minutes from time, Teale reached the byline and the tumbling Roberts sidefooted a shot just past the far post.
Before the goal-kick could be taken, Wenger withdrew Henry for Van Persie. The Frenchman appeared to be hobbling as he walked off.
The game had gone beyond 'open' or even 'stretched'. It was starting to take on the ragged, rickety shape you only get in the latter stages of close cup ties.
Campbell might have sealed a Final berth with three minutes left but he hacked over horribly from a corner when he has time to take the ball down.
Still, as we entered extra-time, you sensed this game was going down to the wire.
Wigan looked the better side at the start of the added period. Seven minutes in, Roberts got the better of Senderos and Campbell timed his sliding tackle to perfection as the former West Brom striker looked set to score from 12 yards out.
However two minutes from the break, Pollitt made another superb fingertip save after it seemed that Bergkamp had rounded the keeper and looked certain to score.
Three minutes into the second period, Graham Kavanagh fouled Pires just outside the area and Van Persie curled a stunning free-kick into the top right-hand corner of the net. For once, Pollitt was rooted to the spot.
Roberts and Chimbonda both went close in reply but Bergkamp might have put the game safe three minutes from time. Again Pollitt saved with his legs.
Shortly afterwards, Roberts grabbed that incredible late winner.
- Gilbert Yellow Card
- Diaby 45
- Hleb 69
- Henry 79 Goal!
- Reyes Yellow Card
- Flamini 45
- Pires 69
- van Persie 79 Goal!
- Chimbonda Yellow Card
- Scharner Yellow Card
- Kavanagh Yellow Card
- Mahon 63
- Mellor 60
- Roberts Goal!
- Johansson 60
- Ziegler 63