Arsenal escaped an FA Cup disaster this afternoon at the Emirates, battling to a 1-1 draw with Leeds United. I said it yesterday, that it would be stupid to underestimate our lower league opponents and it came true as Leeds thoroughly deserved their draw and replay to be scheduled at Elland Road at later date.
Arsene Wenger chose a stronger team than what was maybe expected, with the inclusion of Song, Chamakh and Arshavin in the starting eleven. The announcer at the Emirates informed the crowd the game was a 60,000+ sellout but there was a lot of empty red seats for a 'sellout'. This annoyed me greatly, because if I lived closer to North London and had the cash, I'd have been there! (though given the final score, its probably better that I wasn't) The game started pretty slowly and in the 10th minute Arshavin wasted a fantastic one-on-one opportunity after a great through ball by stand-in captain Rosicky. The little Russian had acres of space to score but shot right at Leeds keeper Kasper Schmeichel, a disappointing effort. For the majority of the first half Arsenal failed to get into any rhythm at all and were sloppy all over the pitch. The chemistry in the squad was reminiscent of the Wigan game not long ago - crap. However, with roughly 15 minutes left before half time the Gunners notched things up a bit and turned up the tempo. In the 27th minute Chamakh nodded the ball back to Arshavin who hit the ball nicely on the volley but it was straight at Schmeichel and out for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, the ball ping ponged around the box and was finally cleared off the line by a Leeds defender before Denilson forced a good save from distance at Schmeichel. Arsenal had definitely raised the bar and Leeds were struggling to cope. Defender Alex Bruce, who had a tremendous game in the Leeds defence, cut out a dangerous pass by Arshavin intended for Bendtner which would have had Leeds in trouble. From the resulting corner, Chamakh headed straight at Schmeichel wasting another good opportunity. Just before the end of the first half, Bendtner jinked his way into the Leeds penalty area before unleashing a low shot which was comfortably saved by Schmeichel yet again. Arsenal just couldn't get that crucial goal and it was the visitors who left the pitch at half time the happier.
The Gunners started the second half brightly, piling more pressure on Leeds - it only looked a matter of time before Arsenal converted one of their many chances and took the lead. But then disaster struck, as it often has at the Emirates this season. In the 53rd minute against the run of play, Leeds winger Max Gradel was upended by Denilson in the box and referee Phil Dowd (whom I despise) had no option but to point to the spot. Robert Snodgrass stepped up to take the penalty and narrowly squeezed it under Szczesny's left hand to make it 1-0 to Leeds. A nightmare upset was suddenly on the cards for the home side and Arsenal really had to step things up to avoid humiliation. A few minutes after the visitors took the lead, Fabregas was brought on to replace Song and ten minutes later Theo Walcott was introduced, replacing Chamakh. It was all or nothing now for Arsenal, but it was Leeds who nearly took a two goal lead when Becchio forced a stunning save from Szczesny, who palmed away the Leeds man's powerful header. Arsenal were banging their heads against the brick wall of the Leeds defence, constantly looking dangerous yet not really looking any closer to scoring that all important equaliser. With ten minutes left, Arsenal were getting desperate and things got a bit crazy; Bendtner blazed over a good header, Theo wasted a great chance when he hit it right into Schmeichel's hands. With only a couple of minutes left, madness ensued when Phil Dowd appeared to reward the Gunners a penalty after Walcott was tripped, only for Dowd to change his mind when the linesman signalled that Bendtner was apparently offside. The problem was, the trip on Walcott happened before Bendtner was offside so the penalty should have stood! But the outrage at the ref didn't last long as Theo was pulled down again in the Leeds penalty area only seconds later, and this time Dowd whistled for a REAL spot kick. Cesc stepped up to take it and dispatched the ball right down the middle, past the diving Schmeichel, to make it 1-1 and save the home team from a famous cup upset at the hands of Leeds. There was still time for a winner in injury time as Arsenal wasted more chances to finish the opposition off and put the tie to bed. Bendtner sliced a decent chance with his left foot (really horrible miss), Denilson nearly won it but for an amazing save from Schmeichel (man-of-the-match from the Leeds goalie), and finally Walcott narrowly missed a making it 2-1, hitting the side netting from a tight angle. The final whistle blew and a sigh of relief was heard all over the stadium - at least we didn't lose...
Obviously most Arsenal fans expected a win and with all the chances we had there really should have been only one outcome. However, we are still in the competition and that's what really matters. I don't particularly like the idea of a replay at Elland Road, especially when we already have a hectic schedule of games in the near future, but it is what it is and we must go there and beat them on their home turf. A match we are more than capable of winning - if we can't then we don't deserve to be in the FA Cup for much longer, simple as that.
Thanks for reading.