By Richard Clarke
A towering header from Jayne Ludlow in injury time of extra time sent Arsenal into the Women's FA Cup Final for another year.
Vic Akers' side dominated Charlton throughout Sunday's Semi-Final and their keeper Pauline Cope was forced into a string of fine saves. But Arsenal only had Julie Fleeting's header midway through the second half to show for their efforts. That was quickly cancelled out by Eniola Aluko and there looked like being no addition in extra time until Ludlow met Rachel Yankey's corner with virtually the last touch of the game.
Seconds later the wild celebrations could start.
Arsenal were quicker off the blocks in front a crowd of well over 1,000 spectators at Bishops Stortford FC. After only five minutes, Faye White won the ball on the right and tapped a short pass to Lianne Sanderson. The 18-year-old floated a superb ball to Fleeting just outside the area.
The Scottish striker cut inside her marker and fired low to the left of Cope. The former England No 1 thrust out a hand to parry the ball aside. It would be the first of many saves for the overworked stopper.
A minute later, Cope was flinging herself in the opposite direction. This time to block a long-range effort from Yankey. The former Fulham winger was to have an influential first half.
Charlton remain hot on the heels of leaders Arsenal in the Women's Premier League and, of course, boast that League Cup victory over Akers' side a few weeks ago. They responded immediately with, arguably, an even clearer chance.
Katie Chapman flicked the ball over the head of Mary Phillip but volleyed straight at Emma Byrne as the Arsenal keeper rushed out to block The Irishwoman deserved a proportion of the credit for cutting down the angle with such alacrity.
Still, in general, Charlton were needing to show the qualities suggested in their nickname - The Valiants. Arsenal could not reproduce that early flurry for the rest of the half but, in terms of possession and territory, they were in command.
Sanderson forced Cope into further gymnastics soon afterwards with a long-range free-kick and Ludlow had a goal-bound shot blocked from a corner.
Charlton stayed sharp on the break but could sustain little. Still, on the half-hour it took a combination of White and Phillip to smother the skills of Aluko at the near post.
In injury time the deadlock should have been broken. A Charlton corner was cleared and Sanderson threaded the ball through for Smith, who steadied herself at the near post but could not beat Cope, who thrust out a right leg to block the ball. Her defence did the rest.
The Charlton keeper continued to be overemployed at the start of the second half. After two minutes she repelled another free-kick from Sanderson as it headed for the top corner.
In the 57th minute, Cope batted away a fierce shot from Yankey at the near post following fine approach work from Smith and Sanderson.
The 18-year-old was becoming increasingly influential. Around the hour she forced Cope into two more saves. First from long range and then after she had collected Yankey's lofted cross-field pass and raced into the area.
If Cope was already on overtime then the next save was worth a bonus. Smith cleverly found space on the left and crossed into the centre, Fleeting met it with solid sidefoot shot. It seemed destined nestle high into the net but the 60-cap keeper fingertipped it over the bar.
Despite Cope's best efforts, the defence in front of her was becoming increasingly bedraggled. In the 70th minute it was breached. Alex Scott drove forward through the centre and flicked the ball out to Sanderson on the right. Her cross was tipped high into the air by Cope at the near post and Fleeting had the simplest of jobs to nod home into the unguarded net from virtually on the goalline.
The lead was thoroughly deserved. But it would last only four minutes.
Casey Stoney thumped a free-kick forward and it was nodded onto Aluko on the edge of the area. She held off her marker superbly before swivelling and sending a low shot past Byrne. It was a sickener for Arsenal.
They might have re-taken the lead in the minutes that followed. Sanderson again stung the hands of Cope, Yankey's shot was deflected over at the far post and the keeper made a sprawling save from Smith's free-kick. But, at the other end, Aluko could have stolen the time at the death when she sent a diving header just past the near post
It seemed that nothing was going to prevent extra time.
Arsenal had the first chance into the added period. After eight minutes, Sanderson won the ball in midfield and sent Ludlow clear in the left-hand channel. She had a clear sight of Cope's goal but Eartha Pond raced back to deflect the eventual shot wide of the upright.
Four minutes later, Smith fled down the right and crossed for the unmarked Yankey at the far post. Her shot was blocked and the ball rebounded to Smith who had a blanket of bodies between her and the goal. She could not force through her shot.
Stoney planted a header against the Arsenal bar within seconds of the restart. But both sides were tiring by now and they could muster little in the final quarter of an hour.
Until Ludlow had the last laugh.
- Fleeting 90
- Grant 90