If Arsenal are to take the road to Wembley this season, it will be via the M6. After romping through games at Liverpool and Bolton in previous FA Cup rounds, they must head for the North-west again on Wednesday week, having been unexpectedly held by Blackburn Rovers in the first of three important cup ties in nine days. Football followers everywhere can only hope that the Champions' League tie away to PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday and next weekend's Carling Cup final against Chelsea are several cuts above yesterday's entertainment, which could best be described as thrill-a-minute - for the last two minutes.
In that period Blackburn's goalkeeper Brad Friedel made an outstanding double save to add to the only one previously required of him. Arsenal may have had a clear penalty refused a little earlier but it was hard to recall their creating so few opportunities in any game and the frustration showed in a niggly exchange between Cesc Fabregas and the visiting manager Mark Hughes after the final whistle.
Blackburn, beaten 6-2 at the Emirates in December, clearly arrived with the principal aim of avoiding any repeat. Their approach was not pretty, though less physical than usual until the last quarter of the game, when Arsène Wenger belatedly sent on Emmanuel Adebayor and Tomas Rosicky and a proper cup tie almost broke out. Arsenal had made no fewer than nine changes from the side that won the fourth-round replay in such exciting style at Bolton three days earlier but here they put together scarcely a single passing move of the sort that decorated that evening.
Although the manager continues to face a difficult balancing act between resting players and winning matches, he appeared for once to have miscalculated this time. The midfield was particularly poor, the wide players Theo Walcott and Freddie Ljungberg being obvious candidates to be replaced when Rosicky's craft and Adebayor's strength were finally sent for. But for the fact that Blackburn's ambition was so limited after a draining Uefa Cup tie in Germany and with seven senior players absent, there would have been a serious danger of Wenger suffering a first home defeat in his ten seasons of jousting for the FA Cup.
"We were a bit flat physically," he said, which surely negated the point of making nine changes. "But I'll continue to rotate. It's not more difficult away from home and I'm very confident we can go through." His answer for the fixture congestion that besets every successful English club at this time of year is to scrap replays in the FA Cup, though he admits that would be an unpopular solution.
Losing a penalty shoot-out yesterday would certainly have been extra hard on the 1,000 Blackburn supporters who had left Ewood Park at 5am, live television coverage having condemned them to another lunchtime kick-off after the fourth-round tie at Luton. That meant a lack of atmosphere and the lowest crowd for a competitive match at the Emirates, all of which seemed to contribute to the tedium of a dreadful first half.
Thierry Henry's side-footed volley wide of goal early on was the only incident of any note before the interval and 75 minutes had elapsed before the next one. Matt Derbyshire, brought on as a Blackburn substitute, lobbed Manuel Almunia, who had some difficulty turning the ball for a rare corner. David Bentley, otherwise inconspicuous on his return to Arsenal, and Zurab Khizanishvili were booked for cynical fouls and Stephen Warnock's trip on Jérémie Aliadière in the penalty area was almost as blatant but somehow ignored by the referee, Martin Atkinson. At last, chances materialised, Friedel saving with his leg from Rosicky, then thwarting Henry and Justin Hoyte in quick succession.
As the teams left the pitch, Fabregas said to Hughes: "Did you used to play for Barcelona? That's not Barcelona football." "I told him I haven't got Barcelona players," Blackburn's manager retorted, adding later: "He needs to show a little bit more respect for people who've won a few more FA Cups [four] than he has." Fabregas apologised, but will not be prepared to concede that his chances of a first one in May have disappeared.Reuse content