(Arsenal win 3-1 on penalties)
By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are through to the Carling Cup Semi-Finals after beating Doncaster 3-1 on penalties on Wednesday night after an incredible 120 minutes of football.
The game was decided when Manuel Almunia saved from Paul Green. It was one of two stops the Spanish keeper made in the shoot-out.
However, when the dust settles, not even Arsene Wenger will quite know how his side got through
Michael McIndoe had caught Arsenal cold as early as the fourth minute when he squeezed home a shot from close range. Commendably, the visitors took the game to their Division One opponents after that and merited Quincy's deflected 63rd-minute equaliser.
Substitute Green bundled the home side in front in the 104th minute after Philippe Senderos dithered over McIndoe's low cross. Arsenal desperately tried to salvage the situation but all hope seemed lost before, just as injury time in extra time began, Gilberto slid home a dramatic equaliser.
Then, in the shoot out, Almunia took over. Arsenal now face Wigan in the last four.
Before kick off Wenger had stuck with the familiar pattern for Carling Cup ties. Youngsters like Alex Song, Johan Djourou, Emmanuel Eboue and Arturo Lupoli were given another chance to impress. Seasoned internationals like Gilberto and Alex Hleb needed a run after suspension and injury respectively. Robin van Persie, who had scored three times in Arsenal two ties so far, continued up front.
Djourou was paired with Senderos at centre back. In the build up to the game Wenger had predicted the duo will form a long-term partnership for Switzerland in that position.
The Earth Stadium, formerly Belle Vue, was buzzing this evening. It seemed the majority of Doncaster were packed into the modest ground. The 10,000-strong crowd had due reason for optimisim, they had seen Penney's side dispose of Manchester Cty and Aston Villa in previous rounds.
Another upset was on the cards when Doncaster took the lead in the fourth minute. The Arsenal defence fell asleep at a throw on the left and Ricky Ravenhill fed McIndoe who slipped the ball past Manuel Almunia and into the net from the tightest of angles. The home crowd's noise nearly took the roof off the stadium.
Arsenal's response was immediate. Hleb's trickery set up Van Persie but Doncaster keeper Jan Budtz rushed out to smother. The Dutchman returned the favour in the 12th minute but the Belarus midfielder squared to Lupoli when he should have shot himself and the opportunity went begging.
The 18-year-old Italian striker continued to combine nicely with Van Persie throughout the first half. However that partnership ended in the 33rd minute when the Dutchman, 22, was forced off. He had hurt his knee shortly before and tried in vain to carry on. Nicklas Bendtner, 17, came off the bench to resume his Reserve team partnership with Lupoli.
The latter set up the former for Arsenal's best chance of the half in the 38th minute. Lupoli tricked himself some space on the left of the area and crossed for Bendtner to flick a header towards the far post. Budtz dived to his left to save on the stretch.
Arsenal had territorial control but at the same time they could never settle at the back. Whenever one of their moves broke down, Doncaster broke quickly and, more often than not, threatened Almunia.
The first half ended with a perfect example. Referee Phil Dowd refused realistic claims for a penalty when Lupoli was hauled down in the area. The play immediately fled up the other end and Sean Thornton's goal-bound effort was blocked. Both chances could have provided a game-changing goal.
Arsenal started the second half with even greater urgency, if that were possible. Lupoli volleyed over from Bendtner's flick and Eboue arrowed an incredible drive narrowly wide of the top corner.
However Doncaster's reply nearly secured them that place in Semi-Finals. First Almunia saved theatrically from Thornton then he made a stunning double stop from McIndoe and Lewis Guy after the paired had broken free once more.
After that cracking start, the game had lulled by the time the equaliser came in the 63rd minute. Quincy cut in from the left and let fly. His effort deflected off a Doncaster defender and left Budtz flat-footed as it flew in. For the first in the game, the home crowd was quiet.
However Arsenal did not press forward on the back of the goal. The next time they really threatened was the 79th minute when Gilberto's headed goalwards from Hleb's cross and Budtz was pressed into action once more.
The 24-year-old nearly won the tie five minutes from the end of normal time. His deflected effort nearly fooled Budtz once more but the keeper twisted in time to clutch on the ball.
As full time approached Arsenal were still enjoying the lion's share of the game, albeit with Doncaster still dangerous on the break.
The impressive Bendtner nearly struck within four minutes of the start of extra time. The big Dane had his initial shot blocked but wrapped his foot around the rebound. It had beaten Budtz but Steve Roberts appeared on the line to hack clear.
Doncaster now seemed to be tired and there for the taking.
Then they scored.
McIndoe broke clear on the left as he had in the fourth minute. His low cross went deep into the six-yard box and Senderos tried to clear. The ball stuck under his foot and substitute Green followed in to scramble the ball home from close range. McIndoe then nearly produced the coup de grace with a piledriver that Almunia did well to bat away.
Arsenal now had to respond once more. Hleb had an effort charged down, Seb Larsson shot straight at the keeper when well placed and Eboue flashed an effort wide of the upright. It seemed it was not to be. But just after the assistant referee's board had indicated two minutes, Eboue streaked down the right and a tumbling Gilberto hooked home the equaliser from six yards
It was the Brazilian who kicked off the penalty shoot-out by sliding an effort in the corner. McIndoe replied in kind. Cygan scored comfortably but Neil Roberts' effort struck the post. Larsson hit the net in style but Paul Heffernan's poor kick was blocked. It was left to Hleb stroke home the winning penalty but Budtz saved. Almunia saved his blushes by parrying Green's shot.
Somehow Arsenal had got through.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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