Arsene Wenger tried to play up the FA Cup and then let slip where the competition lies in his thoughts. "Someone just told me that in the last five years this is the fourth time we have reached the semi-finals," he said, and then was surprised when he was corrected.
On the Premiership or the Champions' League, the Arsenal manager can relate his side's progress almost to the minute but the FA Cup? It barely registers until the team coach is reaching the environs of Wembley or Cardiff. And when even a principal participant has failed to notice five successive visits to the last four it seemed appropriate that this tie should be dominated by two players, Ashley Cole, who played no role, and El Hadji Diouf, whose contribution lasted nine minutes.
Cole sat through this tie on the bench nursing a tight hamstring and thoughts about an impending meeting with the Football Association; Diouf sat in the dressing-room contemplating a moment of stupidity in the ninth minute when he flung an arm in Jens Lehmann's face. He might as well have punched each of his Bolton Wanderers team-mates. With 11 players on the pitch Bolton could have exploited Arsenal limbs and minds exhausted by a Champions' League exit 60 hours earlier. But once Bolton were behind, thanks to Freddy Ljungberg's third-minute goal, and suddenly without the dismissed Diouf, their chance was effectively over, bar a few scares. In fact, the Gunners could have matched Manchester United's 4-0 win at Southampton without an eyebrow being raised.
The Bolton manager Sam Allardyce praised his men who stayed on the pitch but the sense of loss over the opportunity to win a first major trophy for 47 years weighed heavily on him. His side were out and the pregnant question was whether Diouf, who has already served a three-match suspension for spitting in the face of Arjan de Zeeuw in November, will also be out of the Reebok Stadium door.
The Senegalese striker is on loan from Liverpool and, until Saturday's act of madness, had seemed destined for a permanent move. Now, even Allardyce seems unsure. "It will affect our attitude towards him because for the second time this season we're going to be without him for three matches," he said, before describing Diouf as a key player in Bolton's progress. "He's reacted today, got sent off and it's cost us very, very dearly.
"He controls himself for 98 per cent of the time and then something crops up, the red light goes on and the fuse blows. He didn't deliberately try to hit Lehmann in the face - you can see when he flings his arm back Diouf's not even looking at him - but he knows if he lifts his hands he's asking for trouble."
What mystifies Allardyce are the opposites that dwell in Diouf. "He's bubbly, a great character, whoever he bumps into inside or outside the club says he is unbelievably nice. But he has that flashpoint and in the end it's whether you are ready to deal with it."
While Allardyce was pondering that, Wenger was insisting Cole is staying at Highbury. The England full-back's mind was on the FA inquiry into his alleged meeting with Chelsea officials in January but Wenger's wrath was reserved for his London rivals.
"I just think they are rude," Wenger said, while affirming he is certain the meeting took place. "I am just surprised it was in the centre of London in a hotel. Why not in the middle of the M25 - at least everyone would know? It hints of arrogance. It says, 'We are above everything' and 'We just do it where we want'." Ouch. But at least Cole feels wanted. Diouf will be unsure this morning.
Goal: Ljungberg (3) 1-0.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Hunt (Jaidi, 68), Haim (Pedersen, 82), N'Gotty, Gardner; Hierro (Candela, 68); Stelios, Nolan, Speed, Diouf; Davies. Substitutes not used: Poole (gk), Campo.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Ljungberg, Flamini, Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp, Reyes. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Cole, Eboue, Fabregas, Van Persie.
Booked: Bolton Hunt, Nolan, Stelios, Davies, Jaidi; Arsenal Pires, Reyes, Lauren, Flamini.
Sent off: Diouf (9).
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Man of the match: Jaaskelainen.
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