(Arsenal win 3-1 on aggregate)
By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal are in the Carling Cup Final.
Arsène Wenger’s side will play West Ham or Birmingham at Wembley on February 27 after producing a storming comeback in the Semi-Final second leg on Tuesday night.
Ipswich Town had pulled off a famous 1-0 win at Portman Road a fortnight earlier and, for an hour, looked capable of completing the job this evening.
But a wonderful strike from Nicklas Bendtner broke their resistance in the 61st minute and then, almost immediately Laurent Koscielny’s header gave Arsenal the lead in the tie for the first time.
When Andrey Arshavin set up Cesc Fabregas for a third with 13 minutes left the party really began.
This will be Arsenal’s seventh League Cup Final. The first time they won the trophy was 1987, when a young side came from 1-0 down to beat the mighty Liverpool.
That victory kicked-off a run of major honours for George George’s team in the seasons that followed.
There is a similar youth and exuberance about Wenger’s current crop and it has often been argued that one trophy will be followed quickly by many more.
Arsenal have a chance to open the floodgates at the end of February.
Try telling the 60,000 people packed into Emirates Stadium before kick-off that this was ‘only’ the Carling Cup. A trophy was within sight and both sets of fans – red or blue – clearly wanted it.
Wenger’s team selection screamed the same thing. Fabregas and Robin van Persie were retained. The only changes saw Denilson, Bendtner and Arshavin return in place of Alex Song, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott.
At the heart of defence, Johan Djourou made his 100th appearance for the Club.
Ipswich had properly installed Paul Jewell as manager since the first leg. They arrived with a 1-0 lead, 9,000 vociferous fans and a nothing-to-lose attitude.
That was apparent straight from the kick-off when the ball was rolled back to Grant Leadbitter who tried to beat Wojciech Szczesny from the halfway line. The shot landed on the roof of the net.
Arsenal responded with urgency but nothing of consequence in the opening 15 minutes. Van Persie volleyed wide and Fabregas tumbled in the area after being touched by Gareth McAuley. Referee Mark Halsey waved play on.
Ipswich were more than holding their own at this point. Often Arsenal ‘settle’ after an early goal – this evening they did not get one.
In the 11th minute, Clichy fouled David Norris on the Arsenal left. Leadbitter swung over the free-kick and McAuley nodded over with Szczesny stranded. The keeper had come for the ball but had only collided with Sagna in the process. Both needed lengthy treatment - the keeper recovered and played on, the right back did not. He walked groggily around the touchline and was replaced by Emmanuel Eboue.
This Semi-Final had been labelled ‘a doddle’ ever since it has been made but virtually all the evidence in the first 120 minutes was to the contrary.
Midway through the first half, Arsenal did hit the bar when Van Persie met Bendtner’s cross at the far post.
Just before the half-hour, Marton Fulop dropped a Fabregas free-kick. Bendtner collected the rebound but his shot was blocked.
By now Arsenal were starting to crank up the pressure and, as a consequence, the Ipswich defence started to creak. In the 36th minute, Wilshere clipped a pass into the path of Fabregas who cushioned it with his right and flashed a shot across goal with his left.
In the last seconds of the first half, Van Persie and Bendtner ping-ponged chances across the area as Arsenal sought the lead on the night and parity in the tie.
The home side wore some furrowed brows as they walked down the tunnel at the interval. They had been the better team overall but, as at Portman Road, the defensive organisation of Ipswich had thwarted them.
It was more of the same after the restart. Arsenal were dominant in terms of territory and possession but just could not break down their opponents.
And then, in the 61st minute, Bendtner summoned up a goal of rare quality.
It all started with Wilshere spotting the Dane on the left and finding him with a raking, crossfield ball.
Bendtner took it on the outside of his right foot with such delicacy that the ball fell into his path. However there was still much to do. The 23-year-old raced through, cut inside Carlos Edwards and curled a low shot into the far corner.
It was Bendtner at his best.
Finally the Ipswich defence has been breached and, three minutes later, another followed.
Arshavin fired over a corner from the left and Koscielny thundered home a header at the near post. The visitors had shown Champions League poise all evening but their defending on this occasion was definitely Championship standard.
The dynamics of the game had now changed but Ipswich were not spent yet. Substitute Jason Scotland broke away down the left and forced Szczesny into a low stop at the near post.
However, with 13 minutes left, Arsenal made sure. Fabregas broke forward and fed Arshavin, whose wonderfully weighted return ball allowed the Spaniard to fire home through the legs of Fulop.
Late on, Norris headed over and Djourou nearly nodded past his own keeper. But these were minor skirmishes in a battle that had already been won.
Arsenal are going to Wembley once more.
Referee: Mark Halsey
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