By Chris Harris
Arsenal's Carling Cup adventure is over for another year.
Kevin McDonald was the chief party pooper, scoring early in either half to earn Burnley a third Premier League scalp in this season's competition and take the Clarets into the Semi-Finals. Arsène Wenger's young side had their chances but simply weren't as clinical as their Turf Moor hosts.
They also found an inspired goalkeeper blocking their path. Nicklas Bendtner, Mark Randall and Carlos Vela were all denied by Brian Jensen in the first half while Fran Merida shot inches wide after a dazzling run into the box shortly after the break. If only McDonald had been as profligate at the other end.
This defeat will hurt for a while but Arsenal's youngsters will feel the benefits for a lot longer. After brushing aside Sheffield United and Wigan on home soil, this was a different kind of challenge but, all the same, it is a valuable part of their footballing education. Expect to see a lot more from these players in the not-too-distant future.
As ever Wenger gave youth a chance in the Carling Cup, but there was one notable old head in his line-up. Mikael Silvestre partnered debutant Paul Rodgers in central defence as Johan Djourou and Alex Song - both contributors to Sunday's win at Chelsea - dropped out from the side which beat Wigan in the Fourth Round. There was a third change, Bendtner starting up front in place of Jay Simpson.
The young Gunners saw off Sheffield United and Wigan in style at Emirates Stadium in the previous rounds but this was a different - and arguably tougher - test. Shorn of their home comforts, the teenagers were faced with one of the Championship's in-form sides, and one which had already dumped Fulham and Chelsea out of the competition. The conditions weren't ideal either - much of the North-West had been treated to a pre-Christmas dusting of snow in the build-up to the tie and, by the time the teams emerged from the warmth of the dressing rooms, the temperature had nudged below freezing.
Unfortunately Arsenal were caught cold after five minutes. Sixty seconds after Bendtner had forced his way into the box only to prod the ball at Jensen's legs, Burnley took the lead. Chris Eagles slung over a low cross from the right flank, Lukasz Fabianski failed to cling on under pressure from Martin Paterson, and McDonald side-footed the rebound into an empty net.
After running riot in their two previous ties, the Arsenal kids were behind for the first time in the competition. This would be a test of their mettle.
They responded well. Five minutes after his first chance, Bendtner latched onto Vela's clever flick and shrugged off the attentions of Steven Caldwell but, once again, his finish lacked conviction and Jensen blocked gratefully. Merida tested the Dane with a dipping volley shortly afterwards but, after a promising spell, Arsenal got careless.
Aaron Ramsey, Randall and Rodgers all lost possession in dangerous areas and Burnley, looking every inch the promotion hopefuls they are, should have taken advantage. With the impressive Eagles offering a lively outlet on the right, Paterson finding space up front and wily old Robbie Blake in support, the hosts carved out a handful of decent chances. Eagles saw his shot deflect into the side-netting, Paterson shot straight at Fabianski and the same man almost snaffled a rebound after Fabianski - uncharacteristically - spilled another effort.
The game could have been over after that spell but, to Arsenal's relief, it wasn't. The visitors set about restoring parity but, not for the first time, found Jensen blocking their path. Just after the half-hour mark the Burnley keeper stood up well to block a fierce shot from Randall after a wonderful flick from Bendtner left the midfielder through on goal in acres of space. Four minutes later Jensen denied Vela in yet another one-on-one. Burnley's hero in their penalty shoot-out at Chelsea was the headline act again.
The attacking philosophy of both teams had made for a watchable first half and that continued after the break. But only one team was taking its chances - and it wasn't Arsenal.
Once again, the hosts scored shortly after the visitors should have done. Merida's jinking run into the box bewildered three defenders but his finish curled just wide of an upright. At the other end, McDonald's own curling shot landed just inside an upright to leave Fabianski beaten again. Arsenal had been caught napping from a quickly-taken throw on the right, giving McDonald the chance to scamper clear of Randall. Ultimately the Burnley man's clinical finishing had made the difference.
Wenger brought on Simpson - scorer of a brace in the previous round - and he was quickly into the action, firing a shot straight at Jensen after the ball had broken for him just inside the box. But gaps were appearing at the other end and Paterson should have put the tie to bed when Blake's cross picked him out at the far post. Paterson couldn't get enough purchase on his header and Fabianski parried before clutching the rebound.
Arsenal's youngsters kept their heads up and continued to play their football, but Burnley kept them at bay. No matter. On the evidence of this season's competition, Arsenal's Carling Cup kids have the potential to become Premier League regulars.
- Rodgers 46
- Wilshere 63
- Randall 72 Yellow Card
- Merida Yellow Card
- Simpson 63
- Lansbury 46
- Bischoff 72
- Blake 77
- McDonald 61 Goal! Goal!
- Paterson 74
- Elliott 77
- Gudjonsson 61
- Akinbiyi 74