The FA Cup demonstrated its enduring flair for romance, as it threatened to make heroes of League One Huddersfield Town and, in particular, the journeyman striker Alan Lee. But when the dust had settled, it was its capacity for cruelty that provided the over-riding emotion.
Lee Clark’s players had covered themselves in glory by stretching Arsenal to the limit and when Lee conjured the equaliser, it was easy to see Town going on to win or, at the very least, holding out for the replay, such was the exuberance of their football. It was Lee’s first goal for the club on his 26th appearance after his £500,000 summer transfer from Crystal Palace. Talk about timing.
Arsenal had been reduced to ten men by the 42nd-minute dismissal of Sébastien Squillaci for a cynical block on the debutant Jack Hunt, who was one of the many to epitomise Town’s fearless approach. Squillaci will be suspended for Tuesday night’s Premier League fixture at home to Everton, although the manager Arsène Wenger said that the setback would not accelerate his search for central defensive cover. He does not expect to make a signing before the transfer deadline.
The situation after Lee’s goal compelled Wenger to bring on Cesc Fábregas and, not for the first time, the captain dug his team out of a hole. Only four minutes remained when Nicklas Bendtner got the wrong side of Jamie McCombe inside the area and he went down when the defender put an arm around him.
The penalty award felt slightly soft but Clark had no complaints. “As soon as I saw Bendtner go down, I thought it was a penalty,” he said.
Fábregas stepped up and, after a stuttering run, he sent the goalkeeper Ian Bennett the wrong way. He had scored Arsenal’s last-minute equaliser from the spot as a substitute in the previous round against Leeds United to force the replay and his team once again made heavy weather of opposition from Yorkshire.
The Spaniard won himself no friends by gesturing for McCombe to be sent off – the defender, who was the last man, escaped with a yellow card – and, moments later, Fábregas was booked himself for ungentlemanly conduct. He can sometimes blot his copybook by becoming embroiled in petty spats.
“Cesc thought it was a red card [for McCombe],” Wenger said. “We had a player sent off so the same punishment should occur, although in the box, I am personally more lenient than outside.”
Arsenal had started brightly, creating plenty of chances, and they fashioned the opening goal midway through the first-half. It was not without good fortune. Bendtner was still stewing about miscuing a volley moments earlier and being ridiculed by the Town support when he fastened on to a through ball from Marouane Chamakh. He struck a low shot that was heading wide but a deflection off the Town captain Peter Clarke brought it back inside the far corner.
It had to go down as an own goal but Bendtner nevertheless opted to get his own back on the 5,000 travelling fans by running in front of them and cupping his hand to his ear. It was not the classiest thing to do.
Clark could be proud of the football that his team played. They established a foothold and they began to create chances, none better than the free header for Anthony Pilkington in the 39th minute that he glanced wide. Arsenal were unconvincing at the back.
The red card followed further positive Town play. The right-back Jack Hunt surged past the disappointing Kieran Gibbs and inside Laurent Koscielny and he might have got past the last man Squillaci, too, if it were not for the body check. Wenger claimed that the decision was “harsh” but it was difficult to agree with him.
The second-half was golden for Town and the equaliser had been advertised. Andrey Arshavin needed to make a last-ditch tackle on Gary Roberts; McCombe glanced inches wide and Lee’s header forced Manuel Almunia into a flying finger-tip save. From the ensuing corner, the excellent Joey Gudjonsson shot just past the post.
Arsenal were clinging on. There did not seem to be two divisions between the clubs and Town’s moment came when Lee tussled with Abou Diaby at a corner before getting up to thump a header past Almunia.
Yet Arsenal would rally and the penalty broke Town hearts. They surely deserved better.
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