By Chris Harris
Jayne Ludlow pounced in stoppage time to win the League Cup for Arsenal in dramatic style.
Extra time was looming when the Arsenal skipper controlled a late corner and fired past past keeper Gemma Fay to break Leeds' hearts and keep Vic Akers' side on course for a clean sweep of trophies this season.
They might have needed a late, late goal but victory was no more than Arsenal deserved. They created the better chances in a scrappy game played on a poor surface in dreadful conditions. And Ludlow was a fitting matchwinner - she has led the team superbly in the absence of injured captain Faye White.
This triumph makes up for last year's League Cup Final defeat against Charlton. And with the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Cup all within Arsenal's grasp, the class of 2007 could be in for an historic year.
The conditions for a game of this magnitude could hardly have been worse. The players emerged to slate-grey skies, driving rain and a bitterly cold wind. Both sides stood shivering while they met the dignitaries and observed the national anthem.
The pitch wasn't up to much either. Patchy before kick-off, it continued to cut up as the elements took hold and was hardly conducive to Arsenal's passing game. Nonetheless, the favourites fashioned the two best chances of the opening stages.
Karen Carney floated over a corner after 11 minutes and Ludlow, timing her run to perfection, leapt higher than anyone to thump a header against the bar. Then Kelly Smith, showing excellent vision, picked out Rachel Yankey on the right corner of the penalty area. The winger fizzed a left-foot volley just over.
Arsenal were the better side but anyone expecting a repeat of last year's FA Cup Final mismatch was mistaken. Leeds were thrashed 5-0 last May but have added strength and experience to their squad. They were anything but overawed this time. The Yorkshire side bit into tackles and harried Arsenal out of their stride. Leeds got tight on Smith and Lianne Sanderson, doubled up on Yankey and looked to carve out chances on the break.
The second part of that strategy took time to get going. Leeds' only sight of goal in the first 20 minutes was courtesy of Emma Byrne's poor clearance. The Arsenal keeper recovered quickly to deny her former team-mate, Rachel McArthur. But Leeds came more and more into the game as an attacking force. Lucy Ward curved a ball into McArthur's path but she shot weakly under pressure from the covering Ciara Grant. Then Sophie Walton curled a free-kick just wide of Byrne's left-hand post.
Arsenal, guilty of some sloppy passing at times, responded well. Yankey fired wide 10 minutes before the break. Then Smith jinked her way to the byline and sent in a dangerous cross which just eluded Katie Chapman at the far post.
The conditions were making this a far scrappier affair than Akers and his side would have liked. Unfortunately, the weather showed no sign of improvement after the break.
The game continued in the same vein too. Arsenal dominated possession and probed for openings; Leeds continue to smother their opponents. Mistakes crept in from both sides. All in all the game needed a lift. Smith almost provided it just before the hour mark, rattling a shot just wide after evading two challenges on the edge of the box. The England star was starting to find more space - a good sign for Arsenal.
Then Sanderson squandered a decent chance. Yankey was tugged back on the left, Carney's free kick hit the wall but rebounded to Smith on the edge of the area, her overhead kick sent the ball back into the area but Sanderson scuffed her shot wide. It was the England youngster's final contribution as she made way for Julie Fleeting.
With 20 minutes remaining Smith tried to take matters into her own hands. Picking the ball up 40 yards out, she slalomed past a couple of challenges and raced into the box. Fortunately for Leeds their impressive keeper Gemma Fay was alert to the danger and rushed out to block Smith's shot.
It was pretty much all Arsenal but they were so nearly caught with a sucker-punch. Sue Smith's flicked pass found substitute Jessica Clarke in space on the right. Glory beckoned but she slid her shot wide of Byrne's post.
Arsenal kept plugging away in search of that elusive goal. Fleeting's marauding run was stopped by a hefty challenge, Carney saw a free kick deflect wide and Grant headed wide from Smith's cross. Then Jess Wright almost diverted Alex Scott's cross past her own keeper.
Extra time looked inevitable when Smith's cross caused havoc in the Leeds area. Wright cleared her lines - just - but the resulting corner landed at Ludlow's feet and she fired the ball home. Heartbreak for Leeds; unconfined joy for Arsenal.
Kelly Smith holds off Culvin
Katie Chapman beats Burke in the air
Ludlow nets our late, late winner
Jayne turns away in delight
Our ladies lift the League Cup
The silverware goes to Arsenal
The Champagne is cracked open!
Scorer Jayne Ludlow with the trophy
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