Arsenal came close to losing another trophy and conceivably even a manager. The feeling that defeat to a Championship side, however spirited as this Wigan Athletic were, would make up Arsène Wenger’s mind about not signing a new contract after 18 years was growing as the FA Cup holders deservedly went into the lead in this year’s first semi-final with Jordi Gomez’s penalty.
Per Mertesacker, who had conceded it, redeemed himself by heading a late equaliser before some nerveless penalties in the shoot-out, backed up by Lukasz Fabianski’s two saves, earned Wenger’s side their first final in this competition since the lucky 2005 win over Manchester United – the club’s last trophy.
Even so it was still a troubling day after Everton, Arsenal’s conquerors a week ago, moved above them into fourth place in the Premier League table with five matches left. Wenger’s thinking was that Tuesday’s game at home to West Ham will be as important as today, since retaining the Champions League place he has always secured in his previous 18 seasons remains the priority.
“I’m relieved because we were under big pressure,” Wenger admitted. “The consequences of going out would be quite worrying. Wigan were impressive, well organised and showed why they knocked Manchester City out in the quarter-final.”
For all his achievements in the first half of his long tenure, Wenger had still managed to baffle some 50,000 Arsenal supporters who made up the vast majority of the crowd with his decision to start with the coltish young French Under-21 international Yaya Sanogo, leaving the main striker Olivier Giroud stewing on the bench until defeat threatened to end the pursuit of that elusive prize. The manager was even booed when he took off Lukas Podolski rather than the hapless Sanogo to bring on Giroud at last.
As for Wigan, beaten or not, they will hope to return to Wembley in the play-off final next month, to regain the Premier League place snatched from them by Arsenal three days after beating Manchester City here last May on the greatest day in their history. Their impressive manager Uwe Rosler has lifted them from 14th place in the Championship since replacing Owen Coyle in December and had clearly done his homework here. As in most previous rounds he employed a flexible formation in which James Perch was effectively a wide midfielder as much as a right-back, leaving only three men in the back line, except when Arsenal went at them.
Even further forward Callum McManaman was outstanding again, demonstrating pace and verve in running at Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen in the same area of defence that Everton exposed last weekend. Unfortunately it became necessary to take him off because of sheer fatigue.
“I’m absolutely proud of how they performed,” Rosler said. “Psychologically it’s very difficult to concede just before the end of 90 minutes, and when you go into penalties it’s always a lottery. We’re walking out of here in our own mind as winners and we want to be back in May.”
At no stage could Arsenal take anything for granted and, with half an hour played, Wigan had grown visibly in self-belief. They were helped by Sanogo allowing Scott Carson to make two saves from him before half-time, one instinctively from a close-range header, the second when the forward’s clumsy touch let him down. Some Arsenal fans made their displeasure known in the second half when Sonogo failed to latch on to one of the first threatening passes played by Santi Cazorla, right into the heart of the Wigan penalty area.
Attacking the end occupied by their supporters, and numerous empty seats, the holders now had McManaman flitting along the front line, which was how they came to win the penalty.
Out on the touchline he challenged Monreal, who fell heavily. McManaman ploughed on and was brought down by Mertesacker’s clumsy challenge, the referee Michael Oliver waiting, presumably to see if there was any advantage to be gained, before awarding the penalty he can have had no doubts about. Then there was a long wait for Gomez and Fabianksi as Monreal received treatment and was helped off, before the goalkeeper guessed correctly but still could not reach the Spaniard’s well-placed spot-kick.
At last Giroud appeared, and inevitably Wigan were pushed deep. When Bacary Sagna’s header hit a post and substitute Kieran Gibbs’s effort was cleared, it looked as if they might hold out, but in the 81st minute Gibbs hit another shot that sat up perfectly for Mertesacker, onside, to head in. If there was no embarrassment mixed in with relief of Arsenal’s cheers, there should have been.
And so to extra-time in which Arsenal’s best player, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, struck the angle of bar and post and substitute Jack Collison headed wide for Wigan, but neither side could break through.
Collison, on loan from West Ham, quickly became one of the fall-guys when Fabianski saved the first two Wigan penalties, the other being from Gary Caldwell. Arsenal were immaculate from the spot, Mikel Arteta, Kim Kallstrom, Giroud and a jubilant Cazorla all beating Carson. All of which was in stark contrast to their previous two hours’ work.
Wigan Athletic (3-5-2): Carson; Perch, Boyce, Ramis (Caldwell, 86), Crainey; Perch, McArthur, McEachran (Collision, 62), Gomez, Beausejour; McManaman (Powell, 68), Fortuné.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal (Gibbs, 62); Arteta, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski (Giroud, 68); Sanogo.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Man of the match: McManaman (Wigan)
Match rating: 7/10
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