Lukasz Fabianski was the hero on Saturday night as Arsenal squeaked over the line, downing current FA Cup holders Wigan on penalties to advance to the final on May 17. The Arsenal keeper saved two attempts in the shootout to lead his side to a 4-2 win after a 1-1 draw. Arsenal will now have a true chance to break their nine-year trophy drought.
The match will not be remembered as a classic. For long stretches it was an acrid match, played at half speed and devoid of the energy and tension that usually surrounds a cup tie. Moreover, it was a dire performance from an Arsenal side that was not only heavily favored, but under heavy pressure. In the understatement of the year, Per Mertesacker ventured after the match that Arsenal had been “a bit timid” in the first half. Indeed. That, and the fact that Arsenal celebrated wildly after the victory — this against a second division side struggling to come back up this season — speaks volumes about the Gunners’ diminished expectations.
“We’re feeling relieved,” said Arsene Wenger after the match in another understatement. “We expected a difficult game. The difference between winning and losing is very small and this game showed that again.”
The truth is, it has been a heavy fall for a London side that just a month ago, was leading the Premier League and being seriously discussed as legitimate title contenders. On Saturday, before a ball was kicked, they had slipped out of the Champions League slots thanks to another barnstorming win from Everton. This remains their only chance at silverware, yet despite the magnitude of the occasion, the Gunners looked limp for long spells. It wasn’t until Wigan scored that they looked as if they even realized a match was going on.
Arsenal got off to a quick jump, with two good chances inside the first six minutes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was nearly into the Wigan net off the opening kick, but keeper Scott Carson was alert and scrambled off his line well to deny the chance. Then, Oxlade-Chamberlain was sent free wide right and sent in a fine cross that was well met by young striker Yaya Sanogo, and headed smartly down — but again Carson pulled off the stop.
From there, however, the Londoners lost much of their fizz as Wigan’s high press started to pay dividends. Callum McManaman, backed up by James Perch, started to drive down the near side at Nacho Monreal, dragging Thomas Vermaelen out of position every time. Monreal, who has been poor this season, never looked like he could handle the pace of last year’s FA Cup hero, and Vermaelen, if possible, was worse. And as the half ground on Arsenal’s failings grew in evidence. The sloppy passes, the lack of ideas, and most of all the absence of a good striker contributed to a general feeling of malaise. This Wigan, a team sitting a full 19 places below Arsenal in the table, were making a team that once led the Premier League look damningly average.
When the goal came — predictably off a mistake — it felt like a body blow to Arsenal. Per Mertesacker recklessly went to ground to foul Callum McManaman just at the hour mark, and after a lengthy delay while Nacho Monreal was taken off the field after suffering an injury away from the play, Jordi Gomez buried it from the spot. That had Arsene Wenger scattering for substitutes — and the overwhelmingly pro-Arsenal crowd baying. They jeered when Wenger removed Lukas Podolski, they screamed as Sanogo missed chance after chance, and there was a real feeling of menace as time ticked down (Wenger would bristle later on at questions about Sanogo, refusing to answer questions from a TV reporter).
But then, Mertesacker made amends, heading home a scuffed pass in from Oxlade-Chamberlain with eight minutes left to play. Wigan had failed to clear a corner kick after a late flurry of pressure and suddenly, Arsenal had a lifeline. Creidt the introduction of Kieran Gibbs into the game; when Monreal was hauled off, it finally gave Arsenal some attacking flank play. The removal of McManaman by Uwe Rosler as he attempted to close the door backfired as it removed Wigan’s threat out wide. And Oxlade-Chamberlain almost won the game outright in extra time when his shot from 18 yards crashed off the crossbar and back out.
When the shootout began, you could see the fatigue etched on the faces of Wigan’s players. Jack Collison and Gary Caldwell saw their kicks well stopped by Fabianski, and when Santi Cazorla’s goal ruffled the back of the net, the Arsenal bench raced onto the field.
Now, Arsenal must pivot to a London derby: they play West Ham on Tuesday. And while it was clear from his haggard look that it is a big ask, Wenger sounded the right notes, saying, “If we win our remaining games, we will finish ahead of Everton, so we need to focus on the Premier League now.”
But the margin is razor thin, and tonight’s win felt like a reckoning forestalled — not eliminated.