(after extra time; 2-2 after 90 minutes)
By Chris Harris
Eduardo scored a dramatic extra-time winner as 10-man Arsenal won a Carling Cup thriller at Ewood Park.
The young Gunners led Blackburn by two goals after a first-half masterclass, Abou Diaby firing them ahead after six minutes and Eduardo doubling the advantage just before the half-hour mark. Indeed, Arsenal would have been out of sight had Nicklas Bendtner's shot dipped just below the crossbar rather than against it.
Instead, Blackburn were thrown a lifeline when Roque Santa Cruz poked a low cross past Lukasz Fabianski four minutes before the break. The same man headed an equaliser after an hour and, when Denilson was sent off after a poor challenge on David Dunn, the odds seemed stacked against Arsenal.
But yet again, Arsène Wenger's young players showed their character as well as their class. They resisted everything Rovers threw at them and then snatched a winner in the first half of extra time, Eduardo scoring his second with a clinical finish after Alex Song's driving run from defence.
This incredible win was Arsenal's ninth in five seasons against top-flight opposition in the Carling Cup. More importantly, it booked their place in the Semi-Finals for a third successive season. After this gutsy display on a freezing Lancashire night, few will bet against them lining up the Club's first Wembley showpiece.
Wenger would probably have changed his entire starting line-up even if tonight's fixture had not fallen two days after the visit of Chelsea. In the event, the big team news was the presence of Mark Randall. The 18-year-old Englishman was handed his first senior start on the right of midfield after Theo Walcott's late withdrawal from the squad through illness. The starting XI had an average age of just over 20; five teenagers occupied the bench.
Blackburn manager Mark Hughes dropped Benni McCarthy to the bench after their 5-3 weekend defeat at Wigan but Rovers were virtually at full strength. On paper it looked a stern test for Arsenal against a side whose 'blood and thunder' approach had ruffled their feathers in the past. In reality Arsenal gave their hosts a first-half football lesson.
The visitors were instantly into their groove and made the breakthrough after just six minutes. Randall picked out Bendtner with a clever pass in the right-hand channel and the Dane's precise cross picked out Diaby's run into the box. The Frenchman stubbed his shot into the ground and the ball looped over Brad Friedel and into the net. First blood to Arsenal.
The goal stunned Rovers and they were almost knocked cold three minutes later. Bendtner collected the ball 25 yards out and raced unchallenged into the left-hand side of the area. As a defender came across the Dane opened up his body and curled a sumptuous effort over Friedel and against the crossbar. So unlucky.
The masterclass continued. With Lassana Diarra and Denilson bossing midfield, Diaby orchestrating play from the left and Eduardo linking up well with Bendtner, Arsenal kept Rovers at arm's length. A second goal looked on the cards and it so nearly came after 19 minutes. Diaby played a cute pass into the box with the outside of his foot but Samba slid in to divert the ball behind for a corner as Eduardo lurked with intent.
Slowly, Rovers edged their way into the game. Bentley, probably the best player on the pitch who isn't currently on Arsenal's books, had a sighter with a long-range free-kick. Then David Dunn was first to a half-cleared cross, stepped inside a tackle and shot low towards the corner. Fabianski plunged to his left to push the ball aside. Seconds later Fabianski got across well to hold Bentley's effort down by his near post.
That augured well for the home side but no sooner had they belatedly joined the game, Blackburn fell two behind. Denilson found space 25 yards from goal on the right and slid a pass through towards Eduardo. Samba should really have dealt with it but the Rovers defender missed his clearance and Eduardo placed the ball past Friedel.
You sensed that a two-goal half-time lead would leave Rovers with too much to do, given how well Arsenal were passing and moving. But the hosts were thrown a lifeline four minutes before the break. Bentley's pass inside Traore gave Matt Derbyshire a chance to curl in a dangerous cross. He did that and Santa Cruz did the rest, poking the ball past Fabianksi from close range.
It was the perfect filip for Blackburn and they maintained their momentum after the break. Denilson and Diarra, afforded so much space to strut their stuff in the first half-hour, were closed down quicker. Traore and Justin Hoyte, supplementing the Arsenal attack before the break, were pushed back. Rovers were in the ascendancy.
They nearly equalised two minutes into the half when Robbie Savage, a passenger until then, lifted a pass over the visitors' defence and into Santa Cruz's path. Fabianski was already at the edge of his area and decided to stay put. It was the right decision - he got a hand on the striker's shot and, although the ball bounced off Fabianski and back towards Santa Cruz, Song was now on hand to hoik the ball clear.
But the danger had not passed. Song glanced a defensive header just wide from a right-wing cross and then Bendtner headed just over his own crossbar after a wicked delivery from Bentley, 30 yards out and slightly in from the left-hand touchline. The former Arsenal man created the equaliser from an identical position just before the hour mark. This time Santa Cruz was first to the curling free-kick and Fabianski was given no chance.
The momentum was with the home side but Arsenal still had their chances, particularly on the counter-attack. Eduardo broke on the right and picked out Denilson's run through the centre. He didn't have the pace to get beyond Ryan Nelsen but checked back and found Bendtner racing towards the box on the left. The Dane cut inside and shot low, but his effort was blocked.
With 14 minutes left Denilson turned provider again, swinging in a left-wing free-kick at pace. Senderos just failed to connect at the near post and Friedel gathered gratefully. Then Traore got forward to fire in a cross from the same flank; Eduardo could not get his head on it and the hosts breathed a sigh of relief.
Santa Cruz, scorer of a hat-trick at the weekend, almost completed another treble with three minutes of normal time remaining but missed his kick as the ball span loose across the box. Then Arsenal's chances receded when Denilson, already booked, was sent off after a badly-timed lunge at Dunn.
A dislocated shoulder suffered by substitute Nacer Barazite - making only his second appearance for Arsenal - took up much of the first period of extra time. It also sent the game into a lull and the visitors used up a number of uneventful minutes before a clinical attack gave them an unlikely lead.
Song was the instigator, collecting the ball on the halfway line and jinking past two challenges before opting to drive forward instead of playing the obvious square pass. Song picked out Eduardo's run with a precise through-ball and the Croatian did the rest, firing wide of Friedel. Arsenal had just under 20 minutes to hold on..
Another Song-led break saw Bendtner try and sneak in but he was denied by Friedel, racing out to gather the ball as it was played into the box by Eduardo. Then Rovers cranked up the pressure again and went close when Morten Gamst Pedersen's free kick flew just wide.
Benni McCarthy fired wide after finding space in the area and Rovers continued to threaten from set-pieces, while Pedersen lashed a shot off target when well placed. Then Samba headed against the post with a minute to go while Fabianski was forced to palm the ball away from under his crossbar with even Friedel joining the fray.
It was heart-stopping stuff, but Arsenal held out heroically. They have had some good times in the Carling Cup, but perhaps none quite as impressive as this. Wenger's boys are one step from Wembley.
- Diaby Goal!
- Denilson Red Card
- Diarra Yellow Card
- Randall 80 Yellow Card
- Eduardo 116 Goal! Goal!
- Barazite 80
- Gibbs 116
- Merida 101
- Samba Yellow Card
- Warnock 120 Yellow Card
- Savage Yellow Card
- Reid Yellow Card
- Dunn 105
- Santa Cruz
- Derbyshire 90
- Khizanishvili 120
- Mokoena 105
- McCarthy 90