Wembley: Maybe, just maybe, Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final which went into extra-time will mean Arsene Wenger’s tenure as Arsenal manager will also now go into extra-time.
Wenger and Arsenal were staring at a crushing defeat and, with it, probably a parting of the ways. It was that grave. How could he survive this, defeat to the holders, of course, but a Championship side Wigan Athletic?
In the end, the very, very end his team squeezed through on penalties with goalkeeper Lukas Fabianski the hero, saving two spot-kicks, as Arsenal won 4-2 in the shoot-out.
The Wenger narrative will dominate, but it should not detract from an incredible, brave and talented attempted defence of the trophy by Wigan and their bright, impressive manager Uwe Rosler. They deserve immense credit.
The field was taken by Arsenal in the knowledge that Everton had overtaken them with their slender win away to Sunderland and moved into the Premier League’s top four. Would that be a psychological blow for Arsenal? Would it sharpen or dull their senses?
There was no doubting their intent. They sprang at Wigan with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey combining, only for the ball to run away from the former, and then Yaya Sanogo forcing a superb point-blank save from Scott Carson as he met Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross with a downward header.
Remarkably, also, only three of Wigan’s starting line-up appeared in last year’s final which, of course, was followed by Premier League relegation, the departure of Roberto Martinez and the appointment of first Owen Coyle and then Rosler. Still that is some shake-up.
Wigan were pushed back. Arsenal held the bulk of possession with Oxlade-Chamberlain continuing to carry the threat as he ran in behind the defence – only for Carson to rush out and nick the ball away as the England winger was set to lift it into the net.
A poor header by Stephen Crainey led to a half-chance for Sanogo that was snuffed out by Ramis at the expense of a corner. From it Per Mertesacker flicked on a header which reached Bacary Sagna at the far post. He shot narrowly back across the face of the goal.
Wenger continued to stalk the technical area, sensing the breakthrough. Rosler, too, was animated while Wigan’s biggest threat — as he had been in last year’s final — was Callum McManaman who twice broke free down the right only to fail to deliver. The winger went beyond Thomas Vermaelen for a third time, with Nacho Monreal straying, only to then shoot narrowly over from a tight angle.
Sanogo was afforded another opportunity with Wigan opened up far too easily by Lukas Podolski with an interception and the ball running through to the 21-year-old striker. His first touch was dreadful, far too heavy, giving Carson the chance to sprint out and block.
Arsenal’s problems were encapsulated in the milky performance of Mikel Arteta who played so ridiculously deep he was alongside the central defenders and yet appeared determined to move the ball sideways or back.
It invited Wigan on and they accepted with James McArthur working his way into the area, Jordi Gomez winning a corner and, from it, Sagna blocking Ramis’s goalbound shot as the ball was only half-cleared.
It was Wigan showing the urgency. And then it was Arsenal panicking. McManaman all too easily brushed aside Monreal — he was too quick, too strong and the Spaniard crumbled onto the turf injured — and sprinted at the Arsenal area from the right flank. McManaman cut across, showed the ball but was too pacy and was scythed down recklessly by Mertesacker.
Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Rosler could not look, turning his back and there was an inordinate wait before Monreal was stretchered off. Admirably Gomez retained is composure. Eventually he got the go-ahead and he coolly side-footed the spot-kick beyond Lukas Fabianski’s dive. Wigan were ahead and it felt deservedly so.
But Arsenal kept pushing. Oxlade-Chamberlain swung in a cross, after the ball was returned to him from a corner, Sagna jumped and his header bounced back off the post. Then Gibbs reached a flick on, from a Sagna header, Carson palmed it and Crainey hooked the ball off the line.
Finally Wigan could not resist any longer. From the corner the ball dropped out to Oxlade-Chamberlain who mis-hit a shot goalwards from the area’s edge. Mertesacker steered the ball into the net with a stooping header.