No opponents in recent times have troubled Arsenal more consistently than Bolton Wanderers and sending a scratch team to the Lancashire Pennines on an icy night in January was always likely to end in tears. And so it did yesterday evening as Arsène Wenger's side relinquished their grip on the FA Cup in exiting their second knock-out competition in five days.
Ironically, having put up a much more positive performance compared with the 2-0 defeat suffered on the same ground in December, they looked to have done enough to take Sam Allardyce's side back to London, where they would have hoped to duplicate last season's success at the quarter-final stage. Indeed, Wenger felt it was good enough to have won.
Instead, with six minutes remaining of a generally torpid contest, Bolton's Stelios Giannakopoulos stole in to seize the moment with a flying header, his third goal in four games against Wenger's team.
It would have been unthinkable once for the holders of the FA Cup to rest key players in such a potentially difficult tie as this, particularly with a string of injuries and non-availabilities already leaving them weak. But Wenger has made no secret of where this competition sits in his priorities.
Not first or even second, even after an appearance in the final of the Carling Cup slipped away from him last week. "To go out of two cups to late goals is difficult to take," he said. None the less, despite eight enforced absences, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Lauren and Robert Pires were all given the night off. However, as Allardyce pointed out, Bolton themselves, missing three through injury, were scarcely better off, deprived of four likely starters because of the African Nations' Cup.
"In the circumstances, it was a great effort," he said. "Perhaps it was an ordinary game but we produced the best bit of quality to score a brilliant winning goal." Wenger did risk Sol Campbell, nursing a slightly suspect hamstring, in order to organise a defence that included a 19-year-old at centre-back in Johan Djourou and an 18-year-old at right-back in Kerrea Gilbert.
Wenger suggested that Arsenal might have won "by three goals" but their finishing was pretty miserable and the closest to a first-half goal came when Ricardo Gardner charged down a clearance and poked a left-footed shot narrowly wide.
The second half introduced itself with a series of cautions. Abou Diaby, the first of three in as many minutes, effectively put Ivan Campo out of the game, leaving the Spaniard with a badly gashed leg.
Despite their waywardness near goal, Arsenal had been the better side and finally began to threaten an end product. After Robin van Persie had clipped the top of the bar with a header, Bolton's goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen had to arch his back to palm a sharp Freddie Ljungberg shot over the bar, after which a scramble in front of the Bolton goal ended with Campbell putting the ball over the top.
A replay at Highbury seemed likely. However, one moment's poor judgement in defence was to cost them dearly. It was Campbell who was the culprit, allowing Stelios to steal in behind him as Gardner crossed from the left, the Greek diving in to thunder home an unstoppable close-range header.Reuse content