Arsenal 2 Wigan Athletic 1 (aet; 2-2 on aggregate; Wigan win on away goals rule): Roberts the winning ace puts Wigan in first final
Wednesday 25 January 2006
He was not there for the first-leg but he was certainly there at the end - on the pitch, embracing his players, the fans, living the dream that he has created. Dave Whelan, the 69-year-old Wigan Athletic owner, chairman, multi-millionaire and chief believer, could not contain himself as the club that he has determined reached their first ever final.
And they did so on the away goals rule with a strike just 71 seconds from the end of extra-time from their captain, Jason Roberts. It followed a display brimming with audacious commitment, skill and purpose - and an astonishing performance from a 33-year-old goalkeeper who has played for 12 different clubs.
Mike Pollitt saved a penalty and produced a one-man defiance of Arsenal's Thierry Henry who was playing in his first league cup-tie since 1999 and, at times, was at his mercurial best. Such was Arsenal's desire to over-turn their single-goal, first-leg deficit and reach their first league cup final since 1993 that manager Arsène Wenger deployed his strongest available line-up.
Henry scored - with a second-half header to force extra-time - but he was also denied time and again by Pollitt who refused to be bowed under the relentless pressure. Wenger calculated there were six one-on-ones.
But it was far from a one-sided contest. Arsenal raised the tempo and Wigan matched it. Pollitt flung himself brilliantly to turn away Jose Antonio Reyes' first-half penalty, after a handball by Stephane Henchoz, which left Wenger puzzling why the Spaniard had taken it in the first place. It was the fifth missed by Arsenal this season. Henry, he said, was the first penalty-taker, Lauren the second. "I don't understand," Wenger said before revealing that his team has paid a heavy price for its efforts with injuries to Henry, Lauren and Sol Campbell. All will miss the FA Cup tie against Bolton Wanderers while others will be rested by the holders.
Wigan themselves were denied three penalty appeals. "Stonewall penalties", said their manager, Paul Jewell. Two - for clumsy challenges on the immensely powerful, determined Roberts - certainly appeared valid.
Jewell was animated throughout but almost uncontrollable at the end when the realisation that Wigan had overcome Arsenal had sunk in. "I don't like to show my emotions too much but I could not help it," Jewell said after gleefully racing down the touch-line.
He called it a "Mourinho moment" - in reference to the Special One's antics - and the Wigan fans chanted out happily "we've got Paul Jewellio".
It was delirious stuff. It was a rich drama and one played out at a relentless, helter-skelter with Wigan on the front foot, defending a high line - a dangerous tactic given Arsenal's pace.
Henry, though, finally broke through when checking his run, after Alexander Hleb had cleverly released Kerrea Gilbert inside full-back Leighton Baines. As the 18-year-old crossed, Henry was there to nod in his 17th goal of the season. His sore hamstring meant he had to be withdrawn but, in the second period of extra-time, his replacement Robin van Persie struck a wonderful, curling left-footed free-kick from 25 yards that left Pollitt rooted.
It was a worthy winner - but not for Wigan.
As ever they pushed on and a long punt forward had the Arsenal defence in difficulties again. Campbell erred and the ball broke to Roberts - 28 today - who thrashed it deliriously past Manuel Almunia. "Naïve," said Wenger. "Unbelievable," said Roberts. "We are in dreamland." They are also in Cardiff for next month's final.
For Whelan there is another poignancy. It could be against Blackburn Rovers, who tonight meet Manchester United. It was for Blackburn, as a player, that Whelan appeared in an FA Cup final. He broke his leg, lost his career - and went on to make the millions, through his retail empire, that created Wigan. Another script is ready.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Gilbert, Senderos, Campbell, Lauren; Hleb, Gilberto, Diaby (Flamini, h-t), Reyes; Bergkamp, Henry (Van Persie, 79). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Pires, Djourou.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2) Pollitt; Chimbonda, Henchoz, Scharner, Baines; Teale, Kavanagh, Bullard, Mahon (Ziegler, 63); Roberts, Mellor (Johansson, 61). Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Jackson, Francis.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
* The Togo and Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor is likely to start his country's next African Nations' Cup match against Cameroon today. Adebayor was involved in a slanging match with his coach, Stephen Keshi, at a press conference on Saturday after refusing to start Togo's opening game against the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Keshi struck a conciliatory note yesterday, saying: "It was not very professional but it has all calmed down now. I think he will start but I haven't formalised my team yet."
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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