Arsene Wenger's gamble of resting virtually his entire first team for last night's Carling Cup third-round tie against First Division strugglers Rotherham came within a whisker of blowing up in his face before his second-string side finally disposed of Ronnie Moore's battling team in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, the first ever at Highbury in a competitive fixture.
Wenger's kids, who included four debutants and six teen-agers, were on the verge of a narrow and at times distinctly uncomfortable victory over their Yorkshire opponents courtesy of Jeremie Aliadière's first-half strike when the visitors snatched a last-minute equaliser through Darren Byfield to send the game into extra time, then came agonisingly close to putting the Premiership leaders out of the competition despite having had their goalkeeper, Mike Pollitt, sent off for deliberate handball outside the area.
In the end, after both teams had missed two kicks each, it fell to Sylvain Wiltord, ironically one of Arsenal's two miscreants in the first round of penalties, to save Wenger's blushes in sudden death and put the Gunners into the next round 9-8.
Wenger, who had insisted he was taking this tournament seriously, was proud and relieved. "Some of the boys got a taste of what it was like to play in a senior competitive game," he said. "It would have been sad to go out because this kind of experience, you can't give that to any player in a training session.
"Even the more experienced players were caught up by the intensity of it all." Wenger said had no idea which players to choose for the unexpected shoot-out. "I selected the first five with a lot of difficulty because I didn't know them very well and how they would react under pressure at such a young age."
Only four recognised Arsenal players made the starting line-up, the captaincy being handed to Kanu, who joined Wiltord, Pascal Cygan and Edu in an otherwise youth-based team.
Francesc Fabregas became the youngest player to represent the club in a senior match. At 16 years and 177 days, the former Barcelona forward took over that mantle from Jermaine Pennant, now on loan at Leeds.
For Rotherham, the occasion was a welcome respite from their struggle at the foot of the First Division. Thirty years ago to the month, their highly rated manager was in the Tranmere side that shocked Arsenal 1-0 here in the same competition, in the days when the League Cup meant a good deal more to the Highbury heirarchy.
How close Moore came to masterminding a repeat result and giving the 3,000 travelling Millers fans a night to remember despite playing the last 14 minutes of extra time with 10 men after Pollitt's straight red card. "I'm very proud of my players," a crestfallen Moore said after coming so close. "No matter what team Arsenal put out, it's still Arsenal."
Arsenal (4-4-2): Stack; Hoyte (Spicer, 117), Cygan, Tavlaridis, Clichy; Thomas (Smith, 72), Kanu, Edu, Fabregas (Owusu-Abeyie, 84); Wiltord, Aliadière. Substitutes not used: Holloway (gk), Skulason.
Rotherham (4-4-2): Pollitt; Hurst, Swailes, McIntosh, S Barker; Warne, Talbot (Baudet, 105), Robinson (Mullin, 90), Sedgwick (Montgomery, 101); Byfield, R Barker. Substitutes not used: Robins, Monkhouse.
Referee: B Knight (Orpington).Reuse content