There was many a free-kick 'twixt Cup semi-final and lip yesterday, but the right team enjoyed the sweet taste of victory, and an otherwise undistinguished occasion was brought to life by Robin van Persie's little cameo at the finish. If his two fine goals in the last four minutes distorted the scoreline a little, they emphasised Arsenal's essential superiority over opposition they have now beaten three times this season without conceding a goal.
Blackburn, steered away from relegation this season by Mark Hughes' concentration on the basics, only looked as if they might score in the opening quarter of the game, which was by far their best period. Dedicated followers of the current fashion for 4-5-1, they left Paul Dickov to fend for himself in attack until the second half, hoping to disrupt Arsenal with challenges that were always vigorous and frequently illegitimate.
The disruption lasted longer than expected because Arsène Wenger's team lacked a natural focus for their attacks in the absence of Thierry Henry and his 30 goals. The combination of Jose Antonio Reyes and Dennis Bergkamp, both of them happier as a support striker, never really worked. Until the last 10 minutes, when Blackburn were forced to go forward and Van Persie arrived with his fresh legs and deadly eye, Arsenal's chances tended to come from Robert Pires cutting in from his flank, which he did to score the important first goal, just before the interval.
So chants of "easy, easy" did not materialise until victory was secure in added time, although there were olés 15 minutes into the second half followed by sustained applause for one of the longest passing sequences even Arsenal supporters had ever seen. The young defender Philippe Senderos came out even from his tussle with the abrasive Dickov, while Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva kept their composure in the central midfield area, gradually exerting more control after a sluggish start. Their side had struggled for a good half an hour to find their rhythm, the scrappy nature of the early play offering greater encouragement to the Blackburn end of the stadium, half empty as it was.
Morten Gamst Pedersen curled one of the first free-kicks over the bar and Dickov ("I'm a horrible little man on the pitch") was rightly annoyed to be flagged offside when clear. The next foul, by Vieira on Steven Reid, gave his victim the chance to bring the game's first save, a good one low-down by Jens Lehmann.
It was quarter of an hour before Wenger's team were seen in the other penalty area - Bergkamp's free-kick (that word again) failing to find the unmarked Pires at the back post - and half an hour passed before Brad Friedel was made to work, scooping up a shot by Reyes, who had come inside on to his left foot. Three yellow cards for bad tackles on Vieira, by Garry Flitcroft, David Thompson and Aaron Mokoena in the game's second quarter, illustrated how the wild Rovers were beginning to come under pressure. The excellent Friedel was required to pull off a stunning double-save in the 38th minute, parrying Reyes's shot and then springing up as he had done so many hundreds of times in training to block the follow-up by Pires.
Four minutes later, there could be no such heroics. Vieira chipped across goal from the inside-right position, and Lucas Neill unwittingly provided a slight deflection beyond the far post to Kolo Touré, who showed impressive control in sliding the ball square for Pires to tap in.
It was a critical breakthrough. Back in the dressing room shortly afterwards, Wenger and his assistant Pat Rice - involved in his 15th FA Cup semi-final as first a player in the days of replays and now a coach - were able to tell their men to concentrate on keeping the ball and keeping out of trouble. "I was a bit scared somebody would respond and get a red card," the manager admitted.
Hughes, meanwhile, was preparing a more positive approach, waiting only a few minutes into the second half before bringing on the hard-running Australian Brett Emerton for Flitcroft and pushing Pedersen forward into a 4-4-2 formation. At the same time, Arsenal were forced to replace the injured Fredrik Ljungberg with Cesc Fabregas, who was booked for fouling Emerton within four minutes of arriving. Robbie Savage's entrance just after the hour ensured that testosterone level remained high, as did Blackburn's hopes while their opponents' spell of dominant possession did not yield a second goal.
Friedel pulled off another fine save, one-handed to his left, as Lauren crossed for Gilberto, but the goalkeeper had little else to do until the final 10 minutes. That eventful period began with Fabregas racing through and pulling his drive across goal. Jonathan Stead appeared as a third Blackburn attacker, leaving his side more vulnerable than before to Arsenal's classic counters. At the same time Van Persie replaced Bergkamp and within a few minutes had turned beautifully on to Vieira's pass, leaving Neill stranded and skipping past Andy Todd to reprise his recent goal at Ewood Park.
Reid missed a headed chance at the other end, heading weakly at Lehmann and after Friedel had saved from Fabregas, Van Persie completed a remarkable appearance by slashing a third goal into the far corner of the net. As he set off to celebrate, he was caught in the face by the elbow of Todd, a serial miscreant who can hardly expect the benefit of the doubt on these occasions, given his past history. Steve Dunn was generous enough to give it to him, avoiding an even more embarrassing end to Blackburn's big day.
"I thought we were the better side in the first half," said Hughes. "Arsenal have the quality up front to exploit any space you leave and that was the case in the last quarter of an hour. But we've enjoyed our Cup run, it's been good for us and helped our League form. I don't think it was a three-nil defeat." The record books will say otherwise.Reuse content