Through the effort required to lift it, Arsenal have finally discovered the true weight of the Bolton curse. A sequence of three successive defeats at the Reebok Stadium came to an astonishing end last night as Arsène Wenger's team triumphed in extra time in their FA Cup fourth-round replay and that does not even begin to brush the surface of an often farcical affair.
"One of the most bizarre cup ties of all time," was the verdict of the beaten Bolton manager Sam Allardyce, whose side finished with 10 men, survived two penalty misses, trailed until the dying seconds of normal time and who - despite the fact a more ruthless Arsenal performance would have blown them away - could also bemoan profligacy in front of goal for the wasted opportunity of a fifth-round home tie against Blackburn this weekend.
This was a compelling Valentine's Day contest, one that justified the credentials of the Premiership's fourth and fifth-placed teams, yet there was no disputing it concluded with a worthy winner. For a side intent on proving Bolton do not have their number, Arsenal were ridiculously generous. They were careless and they were regularly threatened, but they were also exhilarating on the break and in Freddie Ljungberg they possessed a player still capable of delivering the telling moment or, in the words of Allardyce, "the killer blow".
For 108 minutes, it appeared Wenger's side may have squandered their finest opportunity to prove their new-found maturity at the scene of their meekest upsets. Ahead through Emmanuel Adebayor's 13th-minute deflected strike, they wasted a glorious invitation from the penalty spot when Gilberto Silva drove high over Jussi Jaaskelainen's goal in the second half, watched aghast as Adebayor rounded the Bolton keeper minutes from time only to strike a post rather than a vacant net, and paid the inevitable price when Abdoulaye Meite pounced from close range with a 90th-minute equaliser. Yet they refused to surrender.
In extra time, Arsenal regained their lead when Ljungberg latched on to Jérémie Aliadière's piercing pass and finished superbly into the bottom corner. Adebayor atoned for his aberration with a tap-in on the final whistle.
"We approached the game positively," said Wenger. "There was no psychological handbrake in our heads because we were playing Bolton and we started strongly, but we missed the vision and touch at times in the final third and we made it difficult for ourselves to score. I cannot believe how many chances we missed but it was an electric game with exceptional pace. We had total football at times, both teams went for it, and I am very proud of the performance and the quality of my players."
Ambition was evident in both sides from the first whistle. Bolton captain Kevin Nolan appealed for a non-existent penalty against Johan Djourou inside 10 seconds and though Wenger left Thierry Henry and Jens Lehmann behind in London while he blended his league and Carling Cup sides, it was the visitors who seized a rare initiative on this ground when Adebayor drove them ahead with a 12-yard shot that deflected off Stelios and looped over Jaaskelainen.
Bolton eventually rallied. Two minutes before the break, a shot from Andranik was destined for the bottom corner until it struck Stelios, and though he responded swiftly to the loose ball his drive struck the crossbar before Gilberto Silva, improvising superbly at centre-half, threw himself in front of a third effort from Meite. The pressure continued at the start of the second half, with Manuel Almunia saving superbly from his own defender, Abou Diaby, and grateful when Stelios was caught in two minds as he raced through and simply ran the ball into Almunia's grasp.
Silva became the first Brazilian to miss from the spot in the second half when Tal Ben Haim, later dismissed for two harsh yellow cards from referee Chris Foy, felled Julio Baptista, who became the second in extra time to fire over from 12 yards when Nicolas Anelka hacked down Adebayor. Fortunately for the South Americans, the rescue act was at hand.
"We were missing a lot of big players but we still showed we could compete with the big boys," said Allardyce. "We had some good chances, and Arsenal only had theirs when we were pushing for an equaliser. We hit the bar and we hit the post, but we can be proud." Meanwhile, the Carling Cup finalists march on in the FA Cup, with Wenger not short of opportunities to keep his pool of talent occupied and safe in the knowledge that, although marginal, Bolton are his bogey team no more.
Goals: Adebayor (13) 0-1; Meite (90) 1-1; Ljungberg (108) 1-2; Adebayor (120) 1-3.
Bolton Wanderers (4-3-3): Jaaskelainen; Campo, Ben Haim, Meite, Gardner (Pedersen, 84); Nolan, Speed, Andranik (Tal, 84); Stelios (Vaz Te, 74), Anelka, Diouf. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Fojut.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Djourou (Hoyte, 92), Touré, Gilberto, Clichy; Hleb (Ljungberg, 78), Denilson, Diaby, Rosicky (Aliadière, 90); Baptista, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Walcott.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Bolton Ben Haim, Campo, Anelka; Arsenal Ljungberg.
Sent off: Ben Haim (117).
FA Cup fifth round
(Kick-off 3.0 unless stated)
Arsenal v Blackburn (12.15)
Middlesbrough v West Brom
Chelsea v Norwich
Man United v Reading (5.15)
Plymouth v Derby
Watford v Ipswich
Preston v Man City (1.10)
Fulham v Tottenham (4.0)Reuse content