By Richard Clarke
Arsenal face a replay with Cardiff City at Emirates Stadium after failing to break through the Welsh guards at Ninian Park on Sunday.
The hosts were the brighter side in the first half-hour but the visitors had the whip-hand after that.
Their best opportunity came midway through the second half when Cardiff keeper Peter Enckelman kicked away a swivelling shot from Robin van Persie at the near post.
The home side left their best opportunity to the final three minutes when Ross McCormack saw his long-range free-kick clip the cross bar.
However, on the day, few could complain that Cardiff deserved another chance.
The replay takes place on Tuesday, February 3.
There were no major surprises in Wenger’s line-up this afternoon. Perhaps the introduction of Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey in tandem in central midfield was worth a minor raising of the eye-brow. The latter, back on home turf, got a warm reception and clapped all four corners of Ninian Park as he came out to warm up. The former was making his first start since Boxing Day.
Elsewhere, the absence of Gael Clichy (suspension) and Mikael Slivestre (thigh) meant Kieran Gibbs started at left back. It was his first start for Arsenal outside the Carling Cup.
Nicklas Bendtner came in for Emmanuel Adebayor up front while Lukasz Fabianski continued his run as Cup keeper.
The bench was one of the strongest Arsenal had fielded in some time – Manuel Almunia, William Gallas, Carlos Vela, Jack Wilshere, Adebayor, Denilson and Abou Diaby.
Memories of 1927 are never far away when Arsenal play Cardiff in the FA Cup. Famously, the Bluebirds beat Herbert Chapman’s side in the Final and took the trophy out of England for the only time in its history. The Club remembered their heritage by reprinting the programme from that famous encounter in the Matchday magazine for this afternoon’s fixture.
Of course, Cardiff had come closest to repeating that feat last season when they were beaten by Portsmouth in the Final. They only triumphed over one Premier League side en route to Wembley in 07/08 but they clearly intent on more major scalps this afternoon.
Dave Jones’ side started with real purpose this afternoon and might have grabbed the lead on a couple of occasions in the first half.
After just seven minutes, Chris Burke chased a long ball over the top but his shot was blocked. Then Joe Ledley crossed from the left and McCormack snatched a header wide.
On the quarter-hour, a long clearance form Gabor Gyepes evaded Kolo Toure and McCormack decided to take his shot early from the edge of the area. The ball bobbled a couple of feet wide with Fabianski struggling.
Cardiff were clearly on top. Just before the 20-minute mark, they had two superb chances inside 60 seconds. First, Ledley nodded over. Fabianski took the goal-kick too quickly and Cardiff recovered the ball. Paul Parry advanced and the Arsenal defence opened up as Bacary Sagna slipped. The midfielder fired over when he should have at least made Fabianski save.
You felt that Cardiff had to score while they were in the ascendancy or Arsenal would make them pay.
And they should have.
In the 20th minute Van Persie’s ball found Nasri in utter isolation on left of the area. The French international had ample time to steady himself before firing goalwards. Peter Enckelman bided his time and won this particularly game of patience.
Gradually Arsenal stemmed Cardiff’s flow. Just past the half-hour, Gibbs won the ball at the back and set up an attack. It ended with the same player driving a shot just past the post from the edge of the area.
Five minutes later, Bendtner’s deep cross was tapped back to Van Persie by Nasri. The Dutchman’s effort was weak and easily saved by Enckleman.
By now the game had lost focus. However there would be one major minute just before the half-time whistle.
Parry’s cross was partially punched away by Fabianski and, in the melee, Cardiff had claims for a penalty when Burke’s header hit Gibbs at the far post.
Arsenal broke immediately and went three against two for a moment. However, despite ample space, Bendtner could not convert from Van Persie’s pass. A clear chance.
The visitors were better immediately after the break. But even though Arsenal were on top, Cardiff would have the clearest chance in the early stages when McCormack collected the ball just inside the opposing half, raced forward and let fly from 30 yards. A backtracking Fabianski was forced to desperately bat the ball past the post.
The game was starting to open up and, if anything, that worked in Arsenal’s favour. On the hour, Gibbs clipped the ball to Van Persie on the edge of the six-yard area. The Dutchman executed a superb shot on the turn but Enckelman kicked the ball away.
By now, Diaby had already replaced Ramsey and, midway through the half, Adebayor came on for Eboue. Clearly Wenger did not want a replay.
The substitutes had an effect. Arsenal were suddenly bigger, stronger and more in control. Adebayor scuffed an effort into the hands of Enckelman with 15 minutes left and the keeper then caught an attempted curler from Nasri. However Arsenal’s energy would fizzle out.
The Cardiff crowd roused their side for one final offensive. They were nearly rewarded when McCormack fired his free-kick against the woodwork in the 87th minute. It was the final moment of medicore match.
A draw for a lower league side in the FA Cup is always classed as a moral victory. That is probably true this afternoon.
However, at the same time, you always fancy the higher league side to go through on their own patch.
We'll see about that on February 3.
- Ramsey 60
- Eboue 67 Yellow Card
- Bendtner 88
- van Persie Yellow Card
- Adebayor 67
- Diaby 60
- Wilshere 88
- Burke 79
- Bothroyd 90
- Johnson 90
- Capaldi 79