By Richard Clarke
Leeds nearly ended a couple of Arsène Wenger’s proud FA Cup records at Emirates Stadium 12 months ago.
On Monday, they return to finish the job.
The Arsenal manager has neither suffered a Third-Round defeat nor been subject to a giant-killing in this famous old competition. But he was mighty close to both a year ago.
Leeds went in front just before the hour when Robert Snodgrass scored from the penalty spot and the visitors might have killed the tie only for Wojciech Szczesny, then Arsenal’s rookie keeper, to save superbly from Luciano Becchio.
Simon Grayson’s side were made to pay in the final seconds when Theo Walcott was dragged back in the area and Cesc Fabregas scored from 12 yards. Denilson’s thunderous strike nearly completed an unlikely comeback with the final kick of the game.
Arsenal won the replay at a canter but Wenger has not forgotten one of his closest FA Cup calls.
“The replay was a good game where we turned up in a fantastic way,” he said. “But in the first game we struggled and were a bit lucky.
“They basically still have the players they had last year with the same strengths - Snodgrass, Becchio. They have struggled a little bit recently but they had a good start in the Championship. At one stage they were second but they have dropped a little bit since then.
“However, having had the experience of last year, I am a bit cautious. It is a cup game against a potentially good side and we always need a team with 100 per cent focus in the Third Round of the FA Cup because there is no way to come back.
“The Championship has improved and these sides can make life difficult for anybody - we have seen that in the Carling Cup this season. I think we'll see that again in the FA Cup.”
This game is likely to be dominated by one of its most peripheral figures. Thierry Henry accepts he will be, at best, “a bench player” during his loan spell from New York Red Bulls. Although Robin van Persie is definitely missing on Monday, surely that is where the Frenchman will begin his second stint at the Club.
If Henry does participate it will be his first FA Cup tie since an inauspicious 0-0 draw with Blackburn three days after Valentine’s Day in 2007.
The romantics will want the relationship to be rekindled immediately. In truth, Wenger has fought hard to keep striker Marouane Chamakh from the Africa Cup of Nations for one more game. Surely the Moroccan will start.
Elsewhere Wenger has promised a strong side but expect a little rotation. Defensive absences are cutting still deeper. Johan Djourou is suspended after his dismissal at Fulham while Thomas Vermaelen (calf) will be out until after the weekend at least.
Unless the established partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny is broken up, the two full-backs are likely to be pearled from the following: Francis Coquelin, Ignasi Miquel, Sebastien Squillaci and maybe young Nico Yennaris.
There is more room to manoeuvre elsewhere in the side and Arsenal have a couple of tough Premier League fixtures coming. A glance at the table tells you Swansea have lost just once at home and Manchester United once away.
However there is the carrot of a home tie in the Fourth Round, albeit against Premier League opposition in the form of Aston Villa.
Leeds arrive eighth in the Championship, one point from a play-off place. Despite that, it has been reported that Grayson’s position is under scrutiny.
“For me, he has done extremely well,” retorted Wenger when the notion was put to him. “It is not easy to stabilise a team in the Championship at the moment because there are many clubs with Premier League potential. As soon as you are not in the fight then straight away you are under pressure.
“Leicester, Derby, Leeds, West Ham - all these clubs are expected to be in the Premier League. And I have forgotten many others too. That's why the Championship is a League where the pressure is so big.
“For me, Leeds are a Premier League club. I remember January 1, 2002, they were top of the table. They were always a good side who belong to the Premier League. I am sure they will come back up.”
Later, at his pre-match press conference, Wenger remarked: “The Champions League is compulsory. The FA Cup is something for enjoyment.”
But the statistics suggest that enjoyment still seems to be taken seriously. Arsenal’s last Third-Round defeat was at Sheffield United in January 1996, nine months before Wenger joined. And the Frenchman’s solitary defeat in 35 home ties came, funnily enough, at the hands of Leeds in February 1997, his first attempt at the competition.
He would win it for the first time the following season then followed it with successes in 2002, 2003 and 2005.
“We try to prepare properly,” replied Wenger when asked for the secret of his consistency. “We get criticised a lot but people forget that we lost last year in the FA Cup at Manchester United and we lost in the Champions League at Barcelona. Only just both times. We lost in the last minute of the League Cup and we took these competitions as far as we could.
“We always try to do well in the FA Cup, it is a fantastic competition.”
And Arsenal have a fantastic Third-Round record to protect on Monday evening.
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Djourou (suspended), Vermaelen (calf), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle).
Leeds: Kisnorbo (knee), Snodgrass (appendix), Bruce (hamstring), Howson (knee), Somma (knee)
Arsenal have scored in 12 of their last 13 games against Leeds
Thierry Henry scored four goals in his last match against Leeds, a 5-0 win at Highbury on April 16, 2004
In the 2003/04 season, Arsenal scored 13 goals in three wins over Leeds.
Leeds’ victory at Manchester United in 2010 is their only success over Premier League opposition in their last 13 FA Cup ties.
“The Cup Of Dreams” continues on ESPN and ESPN HD with the FA Cup Third Round as Arsenal play host to Leeds United, live on Monday 9th Jan, coverage starts at 7pm. Subscribe to ESPN now by visiting espn.co.uk/tv or call 0844 324 1548Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source