Arsenal's eight-year trophy drought will not be ended in this season's Capital One Cup. On a frozen night in West Yorkshire, what was on paper one of the strongest sides Arsène Wenger could have chosen had its myriad weaknesses exposed by League Two Bradford City in this quarter-final in much the same manner in which Premier League opposition have been exposing the Frenchman's teams all season.
Well though the Bantams played, for 70 minutes Arsenal were quite astonishingly poor. Unsteady at the back, particularly when trying to deal with set pieces, unfocused in midfield and lacking in any sort of cutting edge, only when Bradford began to tire did the visitors start to put them under pressure.
Even then it took an 88th-minute header from Thomas Vermaelen to equalise Garry Thompson's first-half volley and take the game into the extra half-hour. That Arsenal would dominate the additional period was, as the City manager, Phil Parkinson, pointed out, to be expected, but even then they were not good enough to beat an inspired Matt Duke in the Bradford goal. Santi Cazorla, Marouane Chamakh and Vermaelen then failed to convert their spot-kicks, and Bradford were through to a League Cup semi-final for the first time in their history.
Both performance and result must mark the lowest point of Wenger's reign at the club. While he will not, as the Bradford fans joyfully suggested might be the case, be "sacked in the morning", there appears to be a lot of questions to which he currently has no answer.
That he insisted that his team's effort could not be faulted may in itself be one of the problems. Likewise that it was not down to a lack of quality. While Wenger rightly insisted that Bradford had to be given huge credit for their efforts, the League Two side should not have been allowed to bridge the supposed gulf in class between the teams as effectively as they did.
The Arsenal manager had named a starting XI which must still have pleasantly surprised the club's frustrated supporters. The Frenchman's claim that his choice had been made on the grounds that the club's next Premier League game was not until next Monday may have elicited the odd wry smile, not least from opposite number Parkinson, but a packed Valley Parade – or the Coral Windows Stadium, as City's ground is known these days – took the selection as much as a compliment to the Bantams as having been dictated by circumstances.
The City supporters continued to make plenty of noise as the game got under way, not least because City took the game to their opponents in some style. The pace of Nakhi Wells, a Bermuda international, troubled the Arsenal centre-backs from the start, and it was he who chased down a long clearance to win the free-kick from which City took the lead. Gary Jones' delivery was flicked on by Rory McArdle for Thompson, coming in at the far post to volley decisively past Wojciech Szczesny.
The gloom of the Arsenal fans was evident in their silence, but they perked up when Francis Coquelin dribbled into the City penalty area, dropped a shoulder and hit a dipping drive that bounced away off the outside of the post.
They should have been celebrating when Kieran Gibbs, in space on the left, turned the ball across the Bradford goalmouth. All Gervinho, unmarked and a few yards from the goal-line, had to do was make a decent connection. Incredibly, he failed to do so.
Introducing Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the final 20 minutes represented Wenger's last throw of the dice.
It nearly came off straight away, Oxlade-Chamberlain's first touch being a side-footed shot which the City goalkeeper Matt Duke beat out when he might have tried to make the catch.
The pressure was finally growing, though. Cazorla twice went close before with two minutes remaining, Vermaelen was in the right place to head the midfielder's cross past Duke.
The extra half-hour was all Arsenal, and Cazorla bounced a shot off the bar, but Duke and his colleagues held firm – as they were to do when it came to penalties.
Man of match Wells.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
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- Kieran Gibbs
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- Tomas Rosicky