By Richard Clarke
Arsenal reached the League Cup Semi-Final for a record 14th time with a 2-0 win over Wigan at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The home side struggled in the snow early on and only broke the deadlock three minutes before the interval when Antolin Alcaraz inadvertently nodded a Theo Walcott corner into his own net.
They kicked on from there and, just past the hour, Nicklas Bendtner slid in a low cross from Carlos Vela to make it 2-0.
Walcott and Vela had chances to at least double the score in the final stages as Arsène Wenger’s side cruised home.
Reaching the Carling Cup Semi-Final is hardly a season-long aim for Arsenal but a youthful crowd seemed pretty happy this evening as they celebrated with Mexican Waves. The victory also helped ease the home form issues that have been troubling Arsenal for a couple of months.
In fairness Wenger has always said he wanted to win the Carling Cup, as it is now called, to complete a domestic set. This year he has backed that desire with a stronger team.
West Ham’s win over Manchester United means Arsenal’s will be installed as favourites to lift the trophy in February. That is jumping the gun.
But after tonight’s warming victory, this competition can now be put to bed until 2011.
The main talking point in Wenger’s team selection concerned Robin van Persie. The Dutchman started his first game since the 2-1 win at Blackburn on August 28 and also took the armband.
Walcott and Bendtner returned to the starting line-up after their heroics at Newcastle in the last round. Wojciech Szczesny and Vela also featured after starring at St James Park.
Denilson, Kieran Gibbs and Emmanuel Eboue were also inserted into the side.
Wenger’s bench was part insurance (Andrey Arshavin, Bacary Sagna and Samir Nasri), part education (James Shea, Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Havard Nordviet and Craig Eastmond).
A fluttering of snow greeted the players as they came out. There had been no real question marks over the game going ahead but it was still bitterly cold. Eboue took action against the freezing temperature by donning white tights. Perhaps he was just marking his 200th game in Arsenal colours.
Either way, it made the Ivorian stand out – and he would be caught out a couple of times in the opening 10 minutes.
First, Victor Moses turned him and fired into the sidenetting from a dangerous distance.
Then his errant backpass was anticipated and intercepted by Mauro Boselli. Fortunately the Argentinean’s first touch was so heavy that it stifled the opportunity.
Bendtner had nodded wide in the opening seconds and, on the quarter-hour, headed into the sidenetting. Vela saw a deflected shot go behind and Koscielny sent the resulting corner over the bar.
Still they were only half-chances. As we passed the midway point of the first half, Arsenal had simply not settled and Wigan were probing away at the home defence. It was a very even affair.
However, in the 26th minute, Vela should have tipped the balance.
Wilshere fed Van Persie on the edge of the area with his back to goal. The Dutchman must have spotted the Mexican racing through. He produced a gorgeous back-flick to send Vela into acres of space. Faced with only the keeper to beat, the striker tried his trademark lofted finish over the keeper. This time it drifted wide.
Moses had caused Arsenal problems so it was a body blow for the visitors when he collapsed under a challenge from Walcott holding his wrist. The former Crystal Palace striker was stretchered off in some distress. Charles N’Zogbia came on.
Seven minutes from the break, Arsenal had a loud shout for a penalty when Maynor Figueroa appeared to handle with Van Persie lurking at the far post.
Seconds later, Vela and Bendtner steered decent headers wide of the target.
Then, three minutes from the whistle, Arsenal broke the deadlock. Walcott fired over a corner from the left, Bendtner rose highest but missed the ball. It hit Alcaraz on the edge of the six-yard box and flew in.
Almost immediately the defender nearly had his revenge. Ben Watson thumped in a corner and a header from Alcaraz was nudged on by Boselli. Szczesny saved at the second attempt.
Suddenly this game had found some life.
In the dying seconds, another sumptuous flick from Van Persie sent Vela clear again. This time he stumbled as he raced into the area.
The Dutchman had been the stand-out performer in the first half and, within seconds of the restart, he was in the action again.
Van Persie threw himself into a header but got a bash on the nose for his trouble. After treatment he carried on.
Finally, Arsenal had started to take a full grip on the game. Walcott waltzed to the byline and Bendtner headed over.
N’Zogbia’s pace caused consternation on a couple of occasions but, in the 67th minute, the home side added a second.
Vela fired a low, left-wing cross to the far post and Bendtner slid his third goal of the season.
The Mexican was starting to shine. He could have added a third on two occasions just after that. But Ali Al Habsi denied his sliding shot from the angle having been put through.
Thirteen minutes from time, Vela sent Walcott clear. The winger’s sidefoot shot beat the keeper but drifted just beyond the far post.
Five minutes later, the England international would have another effort. This one appeared to be blocked by the arm of Figueroa.
In injury time, Nasri skipped past the keeper but his shot was booted of the line.
However, by then, this game had been more than won.
Arsenal are in the last four of this year's Carling Cup.
- Persie (C) 73
- Wilshere 73
- Vela Yellow Card
- Bendtner 85 Goal!
- Nasri 73
- Emmanuel-Thomas 85
- Eastmond 73
- Alcaraz (C)
- Figueroa Yellow Card
- Stam 79
- Thomas Yellow Card
- Boselli 82
- Moses 36
- McManaman 79
- Gomez 82
- N'Zogbia 36