By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Once again, a late spot-kick from Cesc Fabregas proved to be Arsenal’s salvation in the FA Cup on Sunday.
In the Third Round, the Spaniard came off the bench to slot home a last-gasp equaliser from 12 yards against Leeds. This afternoon, the captain saw off Huddersfield with a penalty four minutes from time.
Suffice to say, it was a huge relief for everyone - bar the 9,000 visiting fans - at Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal had started well and deservedly took the lead through Nicklas Bendtner’s deflected drive midway through the first half. But Huddersfield defied the 45 places that separated the two sides in the ladder of English football. They pressured the home team and, after Sebastien Squillaci had been dismissed for hauling down Jack Hunt, fully merited Alan Lee’s leveller in the 66th minute.
That Fabregas finale was a blessed relief. After a historically busy January, the last thing Arsenal needed was another replay.
Their Sunday was also blighted by a hamstring injury to Samir Nasri.
But at least they are through in the FA Cup.
It was a day of comebacks for Arsenal. Manuel Almunia started his first game since the 3-2 defeat to West Brom just over four months ago. The Spaniard had been sidelined by an elbow injury and then, just as he was about the return, he had badly damaged his ankle.
Abou Diaby was also back for his first game since the 2-2 draw at Wigan on December 29. He had been suffering from a calf injury. Squillaci, returning himself from a hamstring problem, had scored a late own goal at the DW Stadium that night. He had only played one game since then – the Third Round tie against Leeds. In addition, Tomas Rosicky was back after three weeks out with sickness but he only made the bench.
This was Arsenal’s ninth game in January - a club record – so the remainder of Wenger’s changes were the usual ‘shuffling’.
Emmanuel Eboue, Kieran Gibbs and Marouane Chamakh all returned after starting as substitutes against Ipswich in midweek. Bacary Sagna was missing after collecting a head injury during that game but Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Wojciech Szczesny and Jack Wilshere were available yet left on the bench. Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou were omitted entirely.
Huddersfield were without Benik Afobe. Unlike Sanchez Watt in the last round, the on-loan Arsenal striker was not eligible play. The Yorkshire side filled their ticket allocation at Emirates Stadium. In recent weeks, that sort of support had become a regular and welcome sight in North London.
Arsenal had been lethargic against Leeds in the Third Round tie at the start of the month. But they started much better this afternoon.
After three minutes Arshavin hacked a shot over the bar having been set up but Bendtner’s persistence.
In the 12th minute, the Russian returned the favour but the Dane bundled it wide from close range.
Arsenal were attacking at will with Arshavin getting on the end of most of the good work. However, by Wenger’s own admission, the 29-year-old is not at his sharpest right now.
In the 20th minute, Nasri’s chipped a cross-field pass to Bendtner on the right of the area. He hung out a lame leg and dribbled a shot at keeper Ian Bennett. It drew the derision of the visiting fans.
A minute later, Bendtner cupped his ear to the same supporters in celebration after controlling a similar pass from the Frenchman and firing home. However he did receive a helpful deflection from the sliding Peter Clarke.
Huddersfield had conceded an early goal, usually a nightmare scenario at Emirates, but they were never going to lie down today.
Almost immediately, Anthony Pilkington fired over a dangerous low cross from the right and Lee just failed to add the finishing touch at the near post.
Then, just before the half-hour, Denilson handed the ball straight to Lee who fed Pilkington on the right once more. His low shot flashed across the area and just beyond the far post.
It was proper pressure alright but Arsenal still had all the class. Arshavin shoveled a backheel into the path of Bendtner whose angled drive was smothered messily at the near post by Bennett.
Then, the home side suffered a blow. Nasri pulled up under no pressure holding his hamstring and immediately called for attention. He was replaced by Rosicky – numerically and as captain - before going down the tunnel immediately. With big games coming up in the next month, it was a worrying sign.
The Frenchman’s departure seemed to affect Arsenal and they nearly conceded twice before half-time. First, Pilkington ghosted in and headed wide from Joey Gudjonsson’s cross then the Icelander drifted a cross just wide.
Then three minutes from the whistle Arsenal were hit by another blow. Hunt burst through and was bundled over by Squillaci. The Frenchman was the last man and referee Mark Clattenburg had little option but to administer a red card.
It was Arsenal’s seventh dismissal of the season but Squillaci’s first in five years.
Denilson covered the centre back role until the break but that was never a longer-term option.
With Djourou missing, Song was the only solution on the bench. The issue was which player made way. In the end, Chamakh got ‘hooked’ at half-time.
But it was now a different game.
Yes, Arshavin drove a shot into the sidenetting in the opening seconds however Huddersfield dominated the third quarter of the game. They smelt weakness in Arsenal and went for the jugular.
In the 55th minute, Arshavin tracked back and got a crucial toe-poke to the ball as Gudjonsson seemed set to score.
Then Jamie McCombe and Lee went perilously close with headers - the second of which brushed the post.
Almunia made a brilliant save from the latter on the hour; clawing the ball from behind him like David Seaman had down so famously against Sheffield United in the Semi-Final eight years ago.
But Huddersfield had built up a head of steam now and a goal seemed be coming.
It arrived in the 66th minute when Lee thundered home a header from Pilkington’s corner.
Wenger’s response was to bring on Fabregas for Diaby. Arsenal’s response was to go close twice. First, Koscielny’s drive was blocked and, when the ball was returned, Bendtner nodded inches over the bar.
The Dane cracked a drive over shortly afterwards – as did Arshavin. It seemed that Arsenal had steadied themselves.
With 10 minutes left, Denilson pulled up in similar fashion to Nasri. With all their substitutes made, Arsenal would have been left with nine men if the Brazilian was forced off.
After treatment he hobbled on but did not seem to be 100 per cent right.
Strangely, Huddersfield had taken their foot off the gas after their goal and allowed Arsenal back into the tie.
Four minutes from time, they were made to regret it when Bendtner appeared to be hauled down by McCombe and Fabregas steered home the penalty.
In the final stages, the captain was happy to hold the ball in the corner and kill time. Meanwhile the home fans applauded Huddersfield off the pitch.
They had pushed Arsenal to the limit this afternoon and a side with less mental fortitude would have buckled.
But Wenger’s men are better than that this term.
- Gibbs Yellow Card
- Squillaci Red Card
- Nasri (C) 32
- Diaby 69
- Bendtner Goal!
- Chamakh 46
- van Persie
- Fabregas 69 Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 32
- Song 46
- Pilkington Yellow Card
- Lee Goal!
- Clarke 60
- McCombe Yellow Card
- Hunt Yellow Card
- Arfield 60 Yellow Card