By Richard Clarke
A last-minute penalty from Cesc Fabregas prevented Arsenal becoming the subject of an FA Cup Third Round shock on Saturday.
It looked like Leeds were going to become the first lower League opposition to knockout the North London side in 15 years until substitute Theo Walcott was hauled back and the Spaniard scored from the spot.
The goal heralded a frantic finale in which Arsenal might have grabbed a winner, mostly notably when Kasper Schmeichel saved Denilson’s piledriver.
However, Leeds were worthy of a draw. The visitors were under pressure before they took the lead in the 53rd minute when Robert Snodgrass scored from the spot. But they responded well and might have killed the tie when Wojciech Szczesny saved superbly from Luciano Becchio.
This was a belting Cup tie – a throwback to Arsenal-Leeds games from a decade ago.
And now Arsene Wenger’s side know the size of the task they face at Elland Road on January 18/19.
As early as Thursday, the manager had told Arsenal TV Online there would be “many, many changes” – he did not disappoint.
There were nine in total. Only Alex Song and Johan Djourou were retained from the 0-0 draw against Manchester City on Wednesday night.
But there were seven common players from the 2-2 draw at Wigan just before the New Year. As at DW Stadium, Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner were both chosen but it was the Dane who was pushed out wide.
The most significant starter was Kieran Gibbs, who had been out with an ankle injury since the win over Partizan Belgrade on December 8.
However, Aaron Ramsey was the on the bench. It was his first appearance in an Arsenal first-team squad since suffering that horrific broken leg at Stoke on February 27.
Szczesny took the gloves for the fourth time this season. The young Pole seems to be specialising in big games right now. His debut had come at Old Trafford in December and – perhaps it was just Third Round day, perhaps it was the 9,000 fans Leeds brought to Emirates - but this game felt almost as important.
Simon Grayson’s side arrived in fifth position in the Championship with designs on returning to the top flight. The statistics told us they were the second highest scorers and conceders in the division. Perhaps the perfect combination for a Cup tie.
And Grayson brought back Sanchez Watt, on loan from Arsenal, to help with the former.
The opening ten minutes were all bluster. Leeds were full of energy but did nothing with it.
Arsenal’s first chance should have put them ahead. In the 11th minute, Tomas Rosicky, who was captain for the day, curled a defence-splitting pass into the path of Andrey Arshavin. The Russian was clear but never quite had control. He did get a decent shot away but Schmeichel stood up well to block.
Seconds later, Szczesny raced out to prevent Becchio going through. The ball bounced up dangerously but Denilson kept a cool head to pass his way out of trouble.
Gradually Arsenal roused themselves and, by the half-hour, were firmly on top. In quick succession, Arshavin’s shot was turned aside by Schmiechel, as was Denilson’s drive, then Sebastien Squillaci’s scrambled effort was hooked off the line. Finally Chamakh’s header was booted away by Becchio.
Suddenly it was all Arsenal.
In the 33rd minute, Arshavin tossed a corner into the heart of the area and Chamakh rose highest to make a clean, firm contact. Had it not gone straight at Schmeichel, Arsenal would have been in front.
The home side struggled to keep the same intensity before the break but they were still asking all the questions.
In injury time, Bendtner broke down the right and fired an angled shot towards the near post. Schmeichel made an ungainly save.
It was more of the same after the restart. In the opening seconds, Song raced down the left only for his cross to escape its intended target. Ditto Bendtner on the right a couple of minutes later.
At this point, the stats said Arsenal had enjoyed 68 per cent of the possession. So it was pretty unarguable that the penalty came against the run of play. But the decision was clear.
Max Gradel cut in from the left and went past Denilson, who clipped him. Szczesny got a hand to the spot-kick from Snodgrass but could not prevent it going in.
Wenger’s response was immediate. Fabregas replaced Song.
Leeds had been defending deeply since the interval but now they were penned back. On the hour, Emmanuel Eboue’s dangerous cross was touched away from the waiting Chamakh by Andy O’Brien’s flick.
But the visitors were now playing with more confidence when they did break and Becchio could have added a second in the 63rd minute. The Argentinean met a Snodgrass corner at the near post with a spiteful header. Szczesny thrust out his right hand to turn the ball aside.
Walcott replaced Chamakh with 23 minutes left. Arsenal’s attacking trio was now Arshavin on the left, Bendtner through the centre with the Englishman on the right. Fabregas was operating in the hole.
The home side were now fully in pursuit of this tie – and it did not help their game.
For the first time, Arsenal began to look a little ragged. While, to their credit, Leeds were still looking for a second. The closest they came was when Snodgrass fired a free-kick just wide in the 71st minute.
Shortly afterwards, Wenger played his last card – Carlos Vela for Rosicky.
Arsenal were gambling going forward. Bendtner headed over and Arshavin’s shot was blocked but this was starting to look ominous.
Four minutes from time, Arshavin flicked Walcott through on the right but his attempted chip was too close to Schmeichel.
Just after that, Arsenal thought they had won a penalty when Walcott was clipped by Alex Bruce. In fact Bendtner was called offside.
In the final minute Walcott did win a spot kick when Bradley Parker pulled him back. Fabregas converted the penalty.
Bendtner might have won the tie in the final seconds but blasted wide. With almost the final kick Schmeichel saved wonderfully from Denilson's long-range effort .
That would have been harsh on Leeds, who thoroughly deserved another chance.
Elland Road will be rocking if the replay is anything like this pulsating game.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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