By Richard Clarke
Exactly 358 days before tonight, Eduardo had left the pitch at St Andrews on a stretcher with his career in doubt.
His leg had been fractured, his ankle had been dislocated and Arsenal’s collective heart had been broken.
This evening against Cardiff he also left the pitch early. But on this occasion he had 67 emotional minutes under his belt – his first competitive action since that fateful afternoon in Birmingham – and, in that time, he had scored twice.
The Croatian put Arsenal ahead midway through the first half with the coolest of headers and added another from the penalty spot on the hour. In between those strikes, Nicklas Bendtner had nodded home at the near post and in injury time Robin van Persie added a fourth.
But to be honest, this FA Cup Fourth Round replay only served as a backdrop for Eduardo’s return. Cardiff were overrun in the opening minutes and never recovered their serenity. Arsenal were excellent, always in control and now entertain Burnley in the Fifth Round.
However, to be honest, that all seemed kind of unimportant. Tonight belonged to Eduardo.
The 25-year-old had handled the obscenity of his injury with dignity. It was just wonderful to see him back in the side and doing what he does best.
Welcome back, old friend.
The striker’s selection was one of five changes from the draw at Tottenham the previous weekend. Bendtner joined the Croatian up front while Carlos Vela came into the side on the left-hand side of midfield. This meant Samir Nasri moved to the right.
Kieran Gibbs slotted in at left back and Lukas Fabianski continued his FA Cup run between the posts.
The changes meant Manuel Almunia, Van Persie and Gael Clichy dropped to the bench. Emmanuel Eboue was suspended after his red card at Tottenham while Emmanuel Adebayor was starting an estimated three weeks on the sidelines because of the hamstring injury he suffered at White Hart Lane.
Denilson celebrated his 21st birthday by continuing in midfield. But it was a less happy occasion for Johan Djourou. The centre half was named on the bench but was taken sick just before kick-off. As a consequence, Arsenal had only six substitutes.
It seemed that an age has passed since the 0-0 draw at Ninian Park. In fact it was only three weeks but in that time we had found out these sides’ FA Cup future right up until the Semi-Final.
It was home draws all the way to the last four for tonight’s winner – a massive opportunity.
The Cardiff fans knew it and, in the early stages, they were everything you would expect – loud and confident. They had every right to be given their performance at Ninian Park but Arsenal would soon smother them.
In the opening two minutes, Bacary Sagna crossed deep to the far post and Bendtner steered his header back across goal but wide of the near post.
Shortly afterwards Vela sent a rasping shot towards goal from 25 yards that Cardiff No 1 Tom Heaton could only parry into the path of Bendtner. But the on-loan Manchester United keeper would redeem himself by turning aside the Dane’s follow-up.
Heaton seemed to be taking on Arsenal all on his own. In the seventh minute, William Gallas met Vela’s curling cross with a firm downward header at the far post. The keeper saved with his right knee.
For his part, Eduardo was looking sharp and confident. Around the 10-minute mark he sidefooted a low shot wide and then tried to beat Heaton from the halfway line.
Now that would have been a comeback.
This was the swarming, overwhelming, relentless Arsenal of old and it was a pleasure to see them back. Cardiff were the best the Championship could offer on current form and had thoroughly deserved their draw in the first game – but they were being taken apart this evening.
When it came, the goal was typical Eduardo – all about placement not power. Vela did wonderfully well to put the ball on the Croatian’s head from the left flank but the striker’s body position meant he could not put pace on his effort. Instead he simply guided it into the space the keeper had just vacated.
It was the headed version of passing the ball into the net.
To be honest it could have gone in off Eduardo’s backside and Emirates would still have erupted. As it was, the 25-year-old slid on his knees towards to the touchline before being engulfed by his team-mates.
Everybody knew what this goal meant.
Despite the emotion of the moment, Arsenal were not going to sit back and admire their work this evening. They continued to flood forward and might have doubled their advantage in the 26th minute when Nasri’s shot squirmed under Heaton and dribbled wide.
Cardiff were already looking a beaten side and the second goal only seemed to numerically confirm it. In the 34th minute, Nasri curled over a corner from the left and Bendtner raced to the near post and leapt highest to touch home a header into the far corner. Another goal of ruthless simplicity.
It seemed to draw all the remaining confidence from the visitors and Arsenal should have added a third just before the half-time whistle.
Sagna crossed from the right, Eduardo expertly controlled the ball but his shot on the turn was saved by Heaton. Again the effort came out to Bendtner at the far post. The Dane stuck his first shot against the woodwork and his second was saved by the sprawling keeper. An incredible moment.
There was no let up after the interval. Vela waltzed through in the 53rd minute but his shot was blocked, a couple of minutes later Gibbs whipped a cross into the heart of the six-yard box and Darren Purse scooped the ball away from under his own bar.
Despite Arsenal’s invention Cardiff had to chance their arm. Just before the hour, Fabianski was forced into his first serious action when he stretched to save a low drive from Jay Bothroyd.
But the home side would be quick to respond. Cardiff failed to clear their lines after Heaton had saved Bendtner's shot with his legs and Purse felled Eduardo on the penalty spot. The Croatian got up and scored from exactly the same place.
This time his celebration was more meaningful. He brushed aside his team-mates to hug Tony Colbert, the fitness coach who had worked with him throughout the dark days of the past 12 months.
Ross McCormack saw a free-kick deflected over but Eduardo would have a glimpse of a hat-trick when he tried to lift the ball over Heaton at the far post.
It would be the final act of the game for the former Dinamo Zagreb striker. A couple of minutes later, Wenger replaced him with Van Persie and Nasri with Aaron Ramsey.
Naturally he received a standing ovation.
Amaury Bischoff came on for this first action outside the Carling Cup and, with 10 minutes left, nearly steered home a cross-shot from the narrowest of angles.
In injury time, Van Persie did manage to slot home a fourth. In the final seconds he also nodded against the outside of the post.
This was just what Arsenal needed. A slick performance, lots of goals and the return of a major star.
Hopefully the team – and Eduardo – can kick on from here.
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Toure (C)
- Vela 74
- Nasri 67
- Eduardo 67 Goal! Goal!
- Bendtner Goal!
- Bischoff 74
- Persie 67 Goal!
- Ramsey 67
- Rae 75
- Purse 68
- Parry 68
- Ledley (C)
- Scimeca 75
- Blake 68
- Whittingham 68