Almunia the hero as makeshift Arsenal survive shoot-out drama

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sheffield United 0 - Arsenal 0 at extra time; Arsenal win 4-2 on pens

Sheffield United 0 - Arsenal 0 at extra time; Arsenal win 4-2 on pens

Arsenal revived their flagging season by reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup last night, though their laboured progress in this fifth-round replay against Sheffield United scarcely hinted at an upturn in their Premiership and Champions' League fortunes. After 120 barren minutes, Ashley Cole saw off their stubborn Championship hosts by stroking home Arsenal's fourth penalty. Manuel Almunia, their much-derided goalkeeper, saved successive spot-kicks during the shoot-out.

A spirited United team had spurned chances in the opening minute of each half and were close to a winner in the final seconds of normal time when Almunia tipped over Jon Harley's header. In the additional half-hour, Arsène Wenger sent on Jérémie Aliadière, who forced a fine save from Paddy Kenny. But Kenny was unable to repeat the penalty heroics that took United through against West Ham, and Arsenal now travel to Bolton Wanderers in the quarter-finals.

A relieved Wenger, who had left out Almunia in favour of Jens Lehmann at Bayern Munich a week earlier, paid tribute to the Spaniard for his shoot-out saves from Alan Quinn and Harley. "He showed his quality," the Arsenal manager said. "In his first spell in the team, he was under too much pressure. This time he showed what he shows us in training."

Wenger argued than an average Premiership side would have lost, describing Sheffield United's display as "electric". This was over-egging the quality of the spectacle somewhat, and the Frenchman claimed he was "happy" that his players needed to be "tough, strong and focused".

Neil Warnock, the United manager, admitted that penalties represented a "horrible way to lose". He took consolation from a "fantastic night for the whole club", suggesting that many sides from United's level would have gone under against Arsenal, even though Wenger was without four strikers in the suspended Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie and Jose Antonio Reyes plus the injured Thierry Henry, not to mention two other prominent casualties, Robert Pires and Sol Campbell.

Deprived of players who account for three-quarters of Arsenal's goals this season, Wenger started with Fredrik Ljungberg up front. The Swedish midfielder was partnered by the 17-year-old Italian prodigy, Arturo Lupoli, although their attacks were more threatening after he gave way to Quincy Owusu-Abeyei in the second half.

United carved Arsenal open with barely 40 seconds on the stopwatch. Andy Gray, who had stayed calm to convert United's last-minute penalty equaliser in the first meeting, exploited a square back line to break into space on Arsenal's left, where Gaël Clichy and Ashley Cole still appeared to be debating who was playing at full-back. Gray found Michael Tonge with an angled cut-back, his pass taking out Pascal Cygan and Cole. Yet Tonge leaned back to side-foot the ball over from inside the six-yard box.

By coincidence, United almost caught Arsenal cold inside the opening 45 seconds of the second half. This time Nick Montgomery scuttled into a crossing position, the ball evading Andy Liddell and finally reaching Harley near the back post. The former Chelsea player was unable to make a strong connection, allowing Almunia to pounce acrobatically.

United's supporters may have wondered why Warnock persisted with such a defensive set-up when Arsenal had no front-line attackers available. Owusu-Abeyie gave Arsenal the impetus they lacked, the substitute soon racing on to Mathieu Flamini's pass after Tonge lost possession. Kenny plunged to his right to save, and promptly used his left foot to prevent a Cole shot creeping in by the post.

Vieira had been shackled by Montgomery during the first half, reprising his sullen display at Southampton. After the break he was marginally more animated, and in the 58th minute his pass played in Flamini. His cross bobbled invitingly across United's six-yard box, where Derek Geary adjusted his feet to flick the ball over the bar.

Arsenal briefly had the game by the scruff of the neck. In the 62nd minute, forceful probing by Vieira led to a shooting chance for Cesc Fabregas, whose right foot sent the ball against the bar from 20 yards with Kenny clutching at fresh air.

Nearly an hour late, Almunia, having kept alive Arsenal's season by denying Harley's header, left the pitch beaming for once. But the United captain Chris Morgan detected a "frustrated" Arsenal and warned them, as if they did not know, that Bolton will be an even more arduous test.

Sheffield United (5-4-1): Kenny; Geary, Jagielka, Morgan, Bromby, Harley; Liddell, Montgomery, Thirlwell, Tonge (Quinn, 97); Gray. Substitutes not used: Haystead (gk), Francis, Kabba, Shaw.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren, Cygan, Senderos, Clichy; Flamini (Aliadière, 113), Fabregas (Touré, 91), Vieira, Cole; Ljungberg, Lupoli (Owusu-Abeiye, h-t). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Eboué.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Comments