Football / FA Cup: Merson's majestic goal saves Arsenal

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Arsenal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Leeds United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

BOTH sides have won the title these last two years, both dug deep last night to dredge up the spirit of champions and in so doing they brought the fourth round of the FA Cup belatedly to life with a pulsating scrap in the highest traditions of this most celebrated of all knock-out competitions.

Leeds have not won at Highbury for 13 years, and have progressed beyond this stage of the Cup only once since 1977. Both records were on the verge of improvement after Gary Speed and Lee Chapman put them 2-0 up, but Arsenal produced a rousing fightback which had its reward in Paul Merson's handsome equaliser, nine minutes from the end, which earned them a replay at Elland Road on 3 February.

Whoever emerges victorious that night - and it looks an even- money bet - will be the favourites when they meet the winners of next week's Middlesbrough-Nottingham Forest rematch for a place in the last eight.

Arsenal have not yet conceded the championship and have another string to their bow in the shape of a Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace. For a long time last night they would have been grateful for the alternatives. Leeds, of course, have no such fallback position. This is their last chance to salvage something from a season of decline and disappointment, and whatever they may have lacked, it was not motivation.

What they are short of, once again, is a conventional right- back. The loss of Mel Sterland, out for the season with recurrent ankle trouble has reacquainted them with the problem which has done more than any other to undermine their title defence. This time, though, it proved to be of less significance than the removal of Steve Bould from the heart of Arsenal's back four.

In the absence of the stopper centre-half, injured in a training accident, Leeds found they were able to make unexpectedly easy progress through a soft-centre defence.

Their first goal, after 24 minutes, was the product of the traditional strengths which became so familiar in their championship season. Chapman always likes to do well against one of the few clubs with whom he was deemed a failure, and will have relished beating Tony Adams to a long kick from John Lukic to create the opening.

Speed, so aptly named, made the most of the chance, gaining half a stride on Andy Linighan before shooting firmly past David Seaman from 10 yards.

The second goal, 10 minutes later, came as a reminder of Arsenal's defensive vulnerability, John Jensen holding up his hands, as if in surrender, and allowing Gary McAllister to pass him before crossing hard and low from the left. Chapman has been having a thin time of it of late but he does not miss too many from three feet and gratefully bundled the ball home at the second attempt, past Lee Dixon's

effort at a last-ditch clearance.

Arsenal were stunned, and understandably so. After a nervy, hurry-scurry start they had been the first into their stride, twice threatening to spoil Lukic's return to his old stamping ground in the space of the 20th minute.

The first chance, created by Merson's low, raking cross from the right, saw Kevin Campbell charge in at the far post, only to shoot against the crossbar at close range. Campbell's finishing may be iffy, but there is no disputing his persistence. He was back immediately to test Lukic with a meaty 20-yarder, saved at the second attempt.

It was Leeds, though, who were the more assertive and cohesive side throughout the first half, and they remained so until their shape and rhythm was disrupted by the loss of Chapman and McAllister - target man and playmaker - between the 50th and 52nd minutes.

By that stage, Arsenal had clawed their way back into contention, Ray Parlour, driving through David Wetherall's sliding challenge before beating Lukic from 15 yards.

Leeds thought they should have had a penalty when Jensen felled Rod Wallace on the edge of the area. Wrong. The offence was committed a foot or so beyond the 18- yard line.

If they thought they were hard- done-by then, they were soon cursing their luck again when Seaman produced a blinding save to keep out the close-range header with which Wallace met Carl Shutt's right-wing cross.

Fortune, and the initiative, had changed sides, and justice was served when Merson, supplied by Parlour, accelerated through the middle before driving in the sort of goal which seemed to draw a reaction from everyone - mural included.

A fitting end to a vibrant match. Howard Wilkinson was disappointed in one breath, satisfied in the next. 'Up to losing Chapman (groin) and McAllister (ankle) we played well,' he said. 'Afterwards, we fought well.'

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Hillier, Linighan, Adams, Jensen (Carter, 66), Campbell, Smith, Merson, Parlour. Substitute not used: O'Leary.

Leeds United: Lukic; Wetherall, Dorigo, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Shutt, Chapman (Rod Wallace, 50), McAllister (Rocastle, 52), Speed.

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).

The world of the reserves, page 28

(Photograph omitted)