By Nick Callow
The FA Cup is once again coming to the rescue of an Arsenal manager, as Mikel Arteta steered his side to the club’s 30th semi-final in a competition they have already won a record 13 times. A sub-standard season in the Premier League has left them mid-table and out of contention for Champions League qualification, making Arteta’s first six months in charge extremely challenging.
An injury-time winner from Dani Ceballos, after David McGoldrick’s late equaliser to a Nicolas Pepe first-half penalty, means the Spanish coach is two wins away from following George Graham as the club’s only man to lift the Cup as both player and manager.
A windy, sun-bathed encounter was not without controversy, however, with United manager Chris Wilder insinuating Arsenal were a bunch of divers and there was a conspiracy against his side in the fixture list.
Arteta conceded Cup success would not satisfy his ambition, but maintained: “That’s four games after the coronavirus lockdown and with two wins now hopefully we will get some momentum. There is still a massive gap but we will get it right — we just need a bit of time, that is all. That match showed our character at a difficult place to win and a team to beat. We showed an amazing reaction after conceding so late and now we are back at Wembley. We are the only team played to have four away games in a row and I am very pleased how the players have coped.”
Contrast that to Wilder, justifiably disappointed after a decent performance from his side, but perhaps a touch bitter too. The United manager said: “It was gut-wrenching to lose like that after we had most of the ball and pushed Arsenal to the limit, making it really uncomfortable for them. With a bit more quality we would have won the game.
“Arsenal’s penalty? Their players do not need any invitation to go over and that is how they play. Maybe it is natural for those players. It isn’t natural for me and my players, the player felt a touch and gave the referee a decision to make.
“I am pleased with the way we played. No other team I am aware of has had to play three away games like us and I am sorry about that. These things seem to happen to us and I know why but I will leave you to write about that!”
Er, Arsenal’s four games? Wilder had a point in that United, fielding a full strength side for the first time in ages, were the better team for long periods. John Lundstram had a header from a corner ruled out for offside by VAR and other attacks followed.
Arsenal stuck to their guns in Arteta’s much-changed line-up and formation (David Luiz recalled and error free before injuring an ankle and still no Mesut Ozil) and they passed their way into the game.
The opening goal was still something of a surprise, though, as Arsenal recovered from a poorly taken corner to work the ball to Alex Lacazette who was tripped just inside the area by Chris Basham and referee Paul Tierney’s decision to award a spot-kick was backed up by VAR.
Pepe scored with a low left foot shot and celebrating with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. The Ivorian has struggled to justify his club record €79m fee but a wonder goal at Brighton last weekend and this penalty visibly raised confidence levels.
Arteta added: “I think he has made a click and realises what he needs to do for the team as well when we don’t have the ball. I’m so pleased. If you see his defensive action it’s incredible what he was doing. And then with the ball he gives us the creativity, the flair that big teams need. He’s a free spirit and always unpredictable when he has the ball.
“I really like him. From the past, I didn’t know him personally but I think he is a player with incredible potential, but he needs to be decisive in every game. I will be very persistent with him to try and change that because if he is at his best he is a player who can make the difference for the team.”
Arsenal were again on the back foot at the start of the second half as Wilder’s side tried to make the most of the wind to press forward in numbers.
It blew so strong that when United keeper’s goal kick bounced narrowly over the Arsenal cross bar Wilder shouted ‘Nice one, try it again!”
Another disallowed offside VAR goal preceded McGoldrick’s 87th-minute equaliser. Sead Kolasinac made a mess of his clearance — setting up the United striker with a simple close range finish.
Extra-time and an Arsenal defeat seemed an inevitability now, but Arteta’s team showed some impressive resilience to go all out for victory and Ceballos celebrated like he had won the Cup when he squeezed in his injury-time winner. The Spaniard finished a wonderful counter attack by bursting into the right hand side of the area and beating Henderson with a crisp low shot at his near post.
Henderson 6, Basham 5 (Sharp 76), Egan 6, Robinson 6, Baldock 6 (K Freeman 62), Lundstram 7 (Berge 75), Norwood 7, Fleck 8, Stevens 6, McGoldrick 7, McBurnie7
Zivkovic, L. Freeman, Jagielka, Mousset, Osborn, Moore.
Martinez 7, Luiz 6 (Holding 54), Mustafi 6, Tierney 8, Maitland-Niles 6, Willock 6 (Ceballos 67), Xhaka 6, Kolasinac 5, Pepe 8 (Sokratis 90), Lacazette 6 (Nketiah 67), Saka 6.
Macey, Bellerin, Aubameyang, Nelson, Smith
Paul Tierney 7