By Chris Harris
Another late goal, and the end of another Cup dream. Three days after Didier Drogba's header denied Arsenal in the Carling Cup Final, a thunderous strike from Benni McCarthy has dumped them out of the FA Cup.
The Blackburn striker, on as a substitute, cut inside Philippe Senderos and gave Manuel Almunia no chance with four minutes remaining. It was harsh on Arsenal, who created the better chances but once again could not find a way past Brad Friedel.
The American keeper denied Arsène Wenger's side in the 0-0 draw at Emirates Stadium 11 days earlier and was at it again on his own patch. Julio Baptista saw two long-range efforts tipped aside but was also guilty of missing a free header. Meanwhile, Freddie Ljungberg had a convincing penalty appeal turned down.
Rovers rode their luck but McCarthy's late effort condemned Arsenal to their third straight defeat. Their one realistic chance of silverware this season now lies in the Champions League. Reading are next up but all eyes will soon turn to next Wednesday's return leg with PSV Eindhoven.
A raft of injuries and suspensions left Wenger few options when he sat down to pick his team for this tricky North-West trip. Thierry Henry (foot), Tomas Rosicky (groin), Abou Diaby (foot), Justin Hoyte (hamstring), Johan Djourou (ankle), Mathieu Flamini (foot) and Robin van Persie (foot) were all ruled out. Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure started three-game suspensions after their red cards in Cardiff. And Cesc Fabregas was rested after a punishing schedule.
It wasn't all bad news. Emmanuel Eboue was available for selection as his post-Cardiff hearing has not yet taken place. Meanwhile Gilberto, William Gallas, Ljungberg and Alexander Hleb returned to add experience to an otherwise youthful Arsenal side.
According to some Wenger's side were there for the taking on a cold, blustery night in Lancashire. Mind you, the same thing was suggested when Gilberto was sent off 11 minutes into the Premiership clash between these teams at Ewood Park last month. On that occasion Arsenal swept to a 2-0 win. This time around they recovered from a sluggish start to control the first half.
Rovers enjoyed plenty of possession in the opening exchanges with former Gunner David Bentley buzzing and form striker Shabani Nonda drifting out wide to put pressure on Eboue. That said, Manuel Almunia didn't have to muddy his hands. When the chances came, they came at the other end of the pitch.
Hleb fired a snap shot wide after nine minutes and, gradually, Arsenal found their passing rhythm. They missed the thrust of Rosicky early on but Baptista's willingness to drop deep and collect possession gave the Gunners a useful outlet. The Brazilian was also quick to get into the box and looked the most likely to break the deadlock.
After 26 minutes Baptista was lurking at the far post when Ljungberg sent over a deep cross from the right. Brett Emerton misjudged it and Baptista opted to chest the ball down when a firm header might have beaten Brad Friedel. The ball ran loose and the chance went begging.
Three minutes later Ljungberg had a loud shout for a penalty turned down. The Swede got on the wrong side of Emerton and the Australian, looking shaky at best at right back, bundled Ljungberg over. The offence might have taken place just outside but it didn't matter - Graham Poll gave nothing. The referee also waved away Aliadiere's penalty claim after a collision with Friedel.
By now Arsenal were well on top and, just after the half-hour mark, Baptista squandered a gilt-edged chance. Denilson swung over a free kick and the Brazilian planted a free header a yard over the bar. He should have scored. The same could be said of Ljungberg after good interplay between Gilberto, Baptista and Denilson ended with the latter sliding a perfect ball inside the full back. Ljungberg's touch was far too heavy and Friedel gathered gratefully.
Blackburn threatened sporadically. A cute pass through to Matt Derbyshire was brilliantly intercepted by a stretching Philippe Senderos and Bentley looked dangerous. But the Arsenal defence, led masterfully by Gallas, kept the hosts at arm's length.
Friedel was still the busier of the two keepers. He sprawled to his right to save Aliadiere's low shot just before half time and then tipped a fierce Baptista effort over the bar early in the second half. 'The Beast' tried his luck again from even further out, but once again Friedel was equal to it. Baptista is certainly flourishing though. A run in the side has done him the world of good and a clever double-dragback underlined his growing confidence.
Rovers were struggling to get behind Arsenal's full backs but they did made inroads midway through the second half. Pedersen lost Eboue but, instead of squaring to Derbyshire, he lashed a shot high and wide of the near post after receiving the ball in space inside the penalty area.
Both managers made changes. Wenger brought on Walcott for Eboue and reshuffled his pack with Gilberto dropping to centre half, Senderos filling in at right back and Hleb slotting into central midfield. Mark Hughes replaced Nonda with McCarthy and Tugay with David Dunn.
Walcott's glancing header from Denilson's free kick flew straight into Friedel's arms and, with four minutes left, Derbyshire fired over the bar. But the Rovers supporters had the last laugh as McCarthy cut inside Senderos and hammered a shot into the top corner, leaving Almunia groping at thin air.
Blackburn march on to face Manchester City; for Arsenal, Wembley will have to wait.
Referee: Graham Poll
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