By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are going to Wembley.
They reached their 26th FA Cup Semi-Final with a barnstorming comeback against Hull at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
Lightning threatened to strike twice when Nick Barmby’s effort deflected in off Johan Djourou in the 12th minute. Arsène Wenger’s side struggled to recover until the break but they emerged afterwards as a team reborn.
They poured on the pressure but took until the 74th minute to equalise when Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin intelligently set-up Robin van Persie.
The winner came 10 minutes later amid controversy. William Gallas appeared offside when Djourou flicked on Samir Nasri’s free-kick. But, despite Hull’s protests, the Frenchman nodded Arsenal to victory and Chelsea now await them in the last four on April 18.
With just two months to go until the end of the season, a trophy-hunting manager tends to shuffle his pack more than a Las Vegas croupier. Wenger had made four changes on Saturday. Tonight there were a further six.
The players going out were: Manuel Almunia, Denilson, Gael Clichy, Nicklas Bendtner, Samir Nasri and Kolo Toure. Only the keeper had an injury. The incoming were: Lukasz Fabianski, William Gallas, Carlos Vela, Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby and Kieran Gibbs.
Emirates were expectant this evening. Hull’s victory here in September had rocked the foundations of Arsenal’s season. It has taken almost six months to recover their core strength.
Arsenal had not lost a domestic game since November 22 and the red of their shirts seemed to be vivid again. Far from the pale imitation of their Autumn form. Meanwhile the Tigers had not been living up to their name since that early-season excitement.
Tonight, however, they would roar again.
To be honest, there had been a whole heap of nothingness before Hull scored – but at least the play had been predominantly directed towards the opposition goal.
The strike itself was odd. In the 12th minute, Andy Dawson clipped an aimless ball into the channel for Barmby to run onto. The former Spurs striker swung a boot at it and the ball deflected off the outstretched leg of the onrushing Djourou. It looped over the head of the helpless Fabianski and dropped into the far corner of the net.
It was a freakish effort.
But perhaps Arsenal were expectant themselves tonight. They were expecting rather than earning the victory.
The home side responded to the goal by cranking up their game. But while the energy and composure were there, the forthright attacking of Saturday was not.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Hull had the lead and they set about adding to it.
In the 23rd minute, Gallas was harshly adjudged to have fouled Peter Halmosi. Geovanni’s free-kick was whipped towards the top corner. Fortunately for Arsenal, Fabianski arched his back and palmed the ball over the bar. An excellent and important save but the danger was not over.
Geovanni played the corner to Dawson on the edge of the area. His raking drive was turned in by Barmby and the far post but the England midfielder was clearly offside.
Nonetheless, Arsenal were rattled and soon afterwards Kamil Zayette rose unmarked five yards out to nod the ball over the bar.
On the half-hour, Arshavin’s low shot towards the far post was turned past his own keeper, and the post, by Anthony Gardner. Not that the former Spurs centre half knew much about it.
Arsenal were now starting to interrogate the Hull defence at last. Gibbs and Vela began to get around the back on the left-hand side. But driven crosses were not falling to Arsenal feet tonight.
Five minutes from the break, Walcott’s deflected cross did find Arshavin only for the flying Sam Ricketts to block.
While the home fans were rightly concerned about their side as they went off, the half-time highlight reel showed the teams about level in chances created. But when Hull’s crucial effort had deflected into the goal, the important Arsenal opportunities had deflected wide.
Still, Wenger’s men had not been good enough in the first 45 minutes but they showed more fortitude after the restart – and the chances flowed.
Van Persie drifted a free-kick wide, Diaby nodded inches past the post and then Arshavin’s effort was blocked.
From the corner, Van Persie’s header was nudged off the line by Dawson. The ball fell to Song eight yards out but the swivelling Cameroon midfielder trickled a shot just past the far post.
The real Arsenal had finally arrived.
Wenger kept up the pressure by putting on Bendtner and Nasri for Vela and Song.
Midway through the half, Van Persie’s free-kick was fumbled around the post by Boaz Myhill. Then, with 19 minutes left, the Duthcman planted a header against the bar from Nasri's corner.
By now Hull’s attack steady stream of first-half attacks had slowed to a trickle.
Arsenal had to score and, in the 74th minute, they did.
Bendtner tiptoed through the Hull defence on the right and his ball found Arshavin at the far post. No-one would have blamed the Russian for shooting but the 27-year-old is more clever than that. He spotted Van Persie in space to his right and squared the ball. The Dutchman slammed his 16th goal of the season into the roof of the net.
The crowd now sensed a winner but, in fact, Arsenal were nearly caught cold. Geovanni nipped around Djourou and fired high into the sidenetting.
However a tidal wave of attacks was carrying Arsenal forward. Van Persie volleyed straight at Myhill then the keeper dropped a regulation cross and Bendtner was unfortunate to see his goalbound shot bounce wide of Ricketts’ knee.
Arsenal were asking questions of the Hull defence but they were getting answers. That was until Gallas forced home the winner with six minutes left.
Nasri pumped a free-kick into the area, Djourou then Myhill touched the ball on and Gallas rose highest to force the ball home.
The double deflection was crucial as that may have lead the assistant referee not to raise his flag.
The Hull protests were long and loud. By that time, Gallas had performed an emotional celebration.
Bendtner and Eboue nearly added a third. But it did not matter.
Arsenal were through.
- Gallas Goal! Yellow Card
- Song 64
- Walcott 82
- Vela 64
- Persie (C) Goal!
- Eboue 82
- Nasri 64 Yellow Card
- Bendtner 64
- Myhill Yellow Card
- Dawson Yellow Card
- Halmosi 67 Yellow Card
- Ashbee (C) 46
- Barmby 76 Goal!
- Manucho Yellow Card
- Mendy 67
- France 76 Yellow Card
- Hughes 46