Blackburn Rovers 2 Arsenal 3: Eduardo's extra class shoots young Gunners into last four
Wednesday 19 December 2007
On a night when one suspected that Arsenal's Carling Cup adventure might come to an end it was Arsne Wenger's supposed innocents rather than Blackburn's warriors who emerged from a bitterly cold but committedly physical battle to book their place in the semi-finals.
Pegged back, by two Roque Santa Cruz goals, to 2-2 at the end of normal time, when the Paraguayan's efforts overturned the early goals of Abou Diaby and Eduardo da Silva, Wenger's youthful line-up overcame even the loss of Denilson sent off at the end of 90 minutes to progress through Eduardo's second goal of the evening after 104 minutes.
The straight red card for the Brazilian, for a nasty, two-footed lunge on David Dunn, was an ironic twist in an encounter that has become notorious for bruising clashes on the field and recriminatory words off it, normally from the mouth of Wenger. Only last August, the Arsenal manager had accused Blackburn of having a "desire for violence" after a rough-house draw in which Ryan Nelsen was sent off.
Last night he was singing a different tune, praising his young, developmental side with an average age of 20 for "facing a mental and physical test and standing up to it." He had no complaints about the sending-off. "Denilson lost his nerve with that tackle and although he did not touch the other player you could say nothing against the red card," he said.
Yet at the start there had been little hint that the match would be anything other than a platform for the precocious skills of Wenger's team, even on a ground where they might once have been intimidated.
Blackburn, for all their leaky defensive displays in the Premier League lately, looked as formidable an obstacle as the fledgling Gunners might want to face on a cold December night but even before half an hour had elapsed, it appeared that they were quite strong enough.
Indeed, it took only six minutes for Arsenal's intricate passing to make the first incision, Justin Hoyte combining with the 18-year-old Mark Randall two Englishmen and Nicklas Bendtner in a neat triangle on the right before Bendtner floated a cross to the far post and Diaby lifted the ball beyond the reach of Brad Friedel to open the scoring.
Mark Hughes may have wondered where his right-back had gone but it was a beautifully crafted goal nonetheless and the Rovers manager must have been relieved when, moments later, Bendtner's attempt to double the lead after a one-two with Diaby only hit the bar.
The second goal for Wenger's team came, after 29 minutes, when Christopher Samba could not hide from his mistake, the centre half failing to execute what should have been an easy interception as Denilson played the ball forward. Instead, he allowed Eduardo through to score easily.
There were bookings for Stephen Warnock and Samba as Blackburn's frustrations began to show yet Rovers otherwise responded impressively, giving goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski ample opportunity to show off his talents, the Pole saving well from Dunn after the Blackburn midfielder had skilfully engineered a shooting chance and twice denying David Bentley.
He could do little, however, to keep the ball out when Santa Cruz, fresh from his hat-trick in last Saturday's extraordinary 5-3 defeat at Wigan, put Blackburn back in the hunt by powering home Matt Derbyshire's well-placed early cross after Bentley had released the striker in space on the right.
The Paraguayan's goal empowered Blackburn and, perhaps, unnerved Arsenal. Without doubt, it posed a test of character, more so when Santa Cruz denied only by Alex Song's intervention just after the restart struck again 14 minutes into the second half after Randall had scythed down Warnock 10 yards outside the box, a mis-timed challenge quite rightly punished with a yellow card.
Bentley, whose delivery from free-kicks is as good as any player that Fabio Capello might consider for his first England squad, curled the ball into the Arsenal box at a perfect height and angle for Santa Cruz, who is as strong in the air as he is clever with his feet.
Again, Fabianski had no chance. Now the match was a real contest.
The red card for Denilson should, logically, have been the moment that the balance tilted towards Blackburn. But now there were misses by Santa Cruz and by Samba, who headed against a post, whereas the finishing of Eduardo retained its quality despite tiring legs and the distraction of a long stoppage while Nacer Barazite was treated for a dislocated shoulder the Croatian racing on to Song's through pass after 104 minutes to steer the ball wide of Friedel and clinch Arsenal's passage tothe last four.
Wenger commented: "It was a great game and we dominated football-wise in the first half. We played our combination game technically very good and very agile."
Blackburn, meanwhile, are faltering badly and have now won only one of their last eight games. Hughes said: "We are disappointed with the way we have defended for all the goals. At the moment we're finding it very difficult to give ourselves a platform which enables us to win games. It was the same at the weekend against Wigan. We're conceding too many goals from poor situations but then showing great courage and determination to get back on level terms.
"The effort being expending on getting back on level terms is ultimately costing us. We have a tendency to just switch off again and teams are capitalising on that."
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Reid, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock (Khizanishvili, 120); Bentley, Savage, Dunn (Mokoena, 105), Pedersen; Derbyshire (McCarthy , 90), Santa Cruz. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Roberts.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Fabianski; Justin Hoyte, Song, Senderos, Traor; Randall (Barazite, 80; Merida, 100), Denilson, Diarra, Diaby; Eduardo (Gibbs, 115), Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Gavin Hoyte .
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
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