Derby County. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
TWO steps forward, one step back - the story of Arsenal's season to date. After 20 minutes at Highbury last night, by which time they were 2-0 up, the championship favourites looked like winning by a handful, but a profusion of chances went to waste, and by the end they were grateful to claim their place in the last 16 of the Coca Cola Cup by the slenderest of margins.
Those early goals, by Ian Wright and Kevin Campbell, saw Derby's Rams butt out, but the team from the wrong half of the First Division were enthusiastic contributors to a thoroughly entertaining replay, and deserved the consolation furnished by Mark Pembridge's penalty.
Arsenal, though, had the initiative throughout, and were always going through to play Scarborough away in the fourth round, on 23 December.
Derby had arrived with an impressive sequence of seven successive away wins behind them, and had the better of the 1-1 draw at the Baseball Ground which necessitated the replay. Arsenal had lost at home on Saturday. The ingredients were there, but an upset was never on.
An early Derby score would have made it interesting. Instead, Arsenal were 2-0 up after 13 minutes, and the underdogs were left gnawing at the driest of bones.
The first, after six minutes, could hardly have been easier, Campbell flicking on David Seaman's clearance for Wright to shoot in from 10 yards. Derby's central defenders were conspicuous by their absence as Wright stole in through the middle, and were even more culpable seven minutes later when they parted obligingly under another long punt from Seaman to allow Campbell to thump in the second, from similar range.
Ray Parlour spurned another good chance by shooting weakly with only Steve Sutton to beat, and with Wright tantalisingly close from a difficult angle, Derby were flirting with a real hiding.
Steve Bould was to get in on the act, having a goalbound shot hacked away by Tommy Johnson before the First Division team produced some semblance of reply.
Arsenal were wide open when Paul Kitson cut the ball back, but Derby's finishing was as woeful as their defending, Martin Kuhl shooting over from eight yards.
The Premier League side should have been at least three goals to the good by half-time. Instead, Derby brought the game back to life after 43 minutes, when Steven Morrow felled Johnson well inside the penalty area, and Pembridge dispatched the penalty with a velocity which brooked no argument.
Arsenal might have had a penalty of their own at the start of the second half, when Flatts, released by Wright, tumbled under challenge from Sutton. The goalkeeper definitely made contact with the young winger's leg, but the referee concluded that he had done so while making a legitimate attempt to reach the ball.
Alan Gunn did nothing to improve his popularity with the crowd when he took the softer option and booked Sutton when he charged out of his penalty area and handled the ball to deny Campbell. Right or wrong, the law specifies a red card.
Derby should have punished Arsenal for their profligacy when Short met Johnson's corner at the far post and supplied Andy Comyn, who had Cox out of his box, in every sense, when he side- footed into the side netting from no more than two feet.
A draw, though, would have been a travesty. Arsenal deserve their Christmas by the sea.
Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Morrow, Hillier, Bould, Adams, Parlour, Wright, Campbell, Merson, Flatts. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Limpar.
Derby County: Sutton; Comyn (Williams, 85), Forsyth, Short, Coleman, Pembridge, Johnson, Kuhl, Kitson, Gabbiadini, McMinn (Micklewhite, 83).
Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex).
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