Date: 19th December 2007 at 1:38pm
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There is a section in Fever Pitch when Nick Hornby calculates that his mid life crisis coincided with the exact moment he attended an Arsenal first team fixture and realised he was older than every single Arsenal player on show. Well last night, when Eduardo gave way for Kieran Gibbs in extra time, I achieved that same feat at the age of 23. So most of my morning since arriving home from Lancashire has been spent contemplating whether hair plugs might be a nifty idea, whilst admiring the new BMW Six Series with a serious consideration to buying it!

I jest of course, but its a neat pointer as to just how inexperienced our side was last night and how impressive their battling qualities are in that regard. Speculation mounted on our jounrey North that Theo Walcott had been ruled out with a virus, so it proved. So Arsenal started with young German Youth international Markus Randellow, with his compatriot Jurgen Hoyte tucked in behind him at right back as Arsenal once again carried out their anti English agenda by shunning the nation’s bright youth products. Blackburn instantly looked a side low on confidence as Diarra and Denilson were able to run the midfield early on with a concise mixture of tenacity and technique. Diarra in particular was spraying crossfield passes that were the envy of Beckham in his pomp. It didn’t take Arsenal long to assume a deserved lead with the home side chasing shadows. Markus Randellow fed Bendntner on the right touchline and he clipped in a precise cross to the back post which Abou Diaby beautifully guided in from a tight angle.

The young Gunners’ nearly doubled their lead just three minutes later, Bendtner played a swift one two with Diaby and homed in on goal Bergkamp style, curling a cute effort onto the crossbar from inside the box. The home supports desperate cries of ‘get into ’em’ proved in vain as Savage and Dunn were simply outdone by the pace and guile of Arsenal’s play. Blackburn’s inaugral attempt at goal arrived just before the half hour mark, Gamst’s cross was headed to the edge of the box by Armand Traore, it travelled as far as David Dunn, who shimmied tidily around Senderos before seeing his low effort excellently beaten away by Fabianski. The Polish keeper screwed his subsequent kick out wildly, the ball sailing as far as Jurgen Hoyte, who headed hopefully down the line and found Denilson. As was the vogueish pattern of the opening half an hour, Denilson played a quickfire one two with Randellow, before the Brazilian found space for a slide rule pass to the lurking Eduardo. Christophe Samba stretched but could not intercept, leaving Eduardo through on goal where the Crozilian consummately beat Brad Friedel. It is fair to say that Eduardo is still adapting to the rigours of the English game, but I can honestly say I cannot recall him missing a chance yet. Every time he has been presented with a glimmer of goal, his finishing has been meticulous.

With David Bentley being expertly shackled by Diaby on Rovers’ right, Arsenal were able to nullify their creative threat. But Bentley lost Diaby for the first time in the match on 41 minutes and the negligence would prove costly. Bentley slid a pass down the right to Derbyshire, and his cross was toe ended in by the in form Roque Santa Cruz. I’ve not had a chance to see a replay yet and perspective can be a fickle mistress when sitting behind the goal, but my inclination was that Derbyshire was offside by some distance. Subsequent text messages received appear to add gravity to my suspicion. Bendtner’s touch and vision, allied with the economic passing of the Arsenal midfield, played merry hell with Blackburn’s oft colossal centre half pairing. This was elucidated moments before the interval as Diarra fed a ball into Bendtner, the Dane nonchalantly turned Samba only to be crudely hacked down with young Nicklas prepared to show him a pristine set of heels. Half time came and it was with some regret that our lead had been halved, as our dominance warranted more, and with a stoic Mark Hughes teamtalk looming, I felt the second half might be a very tough proposition.

This is where Arsene Wenger committed a tactical faux paus. At the start of the second half, Eduardo, so dangerous in the box, was once again shunted out on the wing. With Diaby moving into the free role behind Bendtner. This left Nicky B entirely isolated and, without the close attention of Diaby, Bentley was given free reign to dictate Rovers tempo. Consequently, Arsenal found it difficult to retain the ball. On 47 minutes, Savage’s long ball deceived Senderos and Song, leaving Roque Santa Cruz clean through on goal, Fabianski impeded the progress of his initial effort, but as the Paraguayan bore down on goal for a second bite of the cherry, Alex Song roared back and robbed him with a Touresque last ditch challenge. With the home crowd spurred on and in impressive voice, Rovers applied the pressure. Bentley’s free kick was headed narrowly over his own cross bar by Bendtner. From the resulting corner, Samba grazed the ball across goal, but Alex Song once again headed clear with Nelsen lurking from close range. The Gunners’ cleared the next corner and Eduardo broke away having easily outmuscled Robbie Savage, Eduardo fed Denilson who found Bendtner in the left channel, he shifted his feet and sent a low shot towards the bottom corner whch was brilliantly blocked by Warnock. I had the line of the shot behind the goal and I can affirm that had it not been for Warnock’s interception, it would most certainly have been 3-1.

Sixty seconds later, the importance of the block would be chrystalised as Blackburn bagged a deserved equaliser. Bentley sent another floating free kick into the danger zone which Santa Cruz headed powerfully past Fabianski. Santa Cruz is coming to town alright! I feared the worst at this point, as the travelling ranks implored, ‘come on Arsenal!’ more out of desperation than hope. But having achieved parity, I am confused (and delighted) that Rovers did not continue to impress their advantage, with our youngsters rocking and the home side well in the ascendancy. Arsenal’s response was impressive. Song carried the ball out from centre half and fed Bendtner, his backheeled return was marginally too strong for the impressive young Cameroonian. Extra time seemed an inevitability as both sides attacked but to limited effect. That is until the 88th minute when Gamst’s cross was flicked on by Matt Derbyshire to the unmarked Sanata Cruz, who thankfully contrived to miscue his volley with the goal at his mercy. A moment of madness would then occur in injury time as Denilson aimed a spiteful two footed lunge at David Dunn. It was uncharacteristic of the young Brazilian and out of keeping with the game. The match was played at a ferocious tempo but always within the spirit of fair play, so Denilson’s rush of blood to the head is curious and disappointing. He let himself down because he was playing very well to that point. I have rightfully been scathing of Blackburn’s strong arm tactics in the past, but there was little suggestion of that last night, save for Savage’s pathetic hysteria in the aftermath of Denilson’s tackle. If you’re going to forge a career out of executing dangerous, career threatening challenges, please don’t insult everybody’s intelligence by mocking indignation when you see somebody else perpetrate the same act.

At this point I felt extra time would be an exercise on holding on for grim life. But once again, the home side failed to impress any sort of dominance despite their advantage. A nasty shoulder injury (I suspect a dislocation) to Nacer Barazite entirely killed the precious little urgency Blackburn had imposed. On 104 minutes, Alex Song once again brought the ball out of defence before playing a defence splitting pass to Eduardo, who would once again demonstrate grace under fire by slotting past Brad Friedel. It’s perhaps a testament to how much I have come to enjoy this competition that I celebrated the goal with such intensity. One minute after the interval, the Gunners’ could have had it sewn up. Once again, it was the marauding Song bringing the ball out of the backline, finding Merida on the right, but his slide rule pass to Bendtner was marginally overcooked. From this point, it was all Blackburn as Arsenal clung on for dear life. Whereas the match opening had been all about the poise and penache of Diarra and Denilson and Diaby , the closing moments were all about the steely resistance of Hoyte, Song and Senderos, commanind the area as Rovers aimed an aerial bombardment. A Gamst free kick crept just wide of the post.

With three minutes remaining, Arsenal’s resolution would protect the relative virginity of their vulnerable goal. Nelsen’s long ball into the area found Samba, the auxilary striker tried to turn and shoot but was blocked by Song. The ricochet fell kindly to Gamst from close range, but Jurgen Hoyte showed ruthless German efficiency, throwing himself mercilessly at the close range effort and deflecting it away. If only England had players that committed! The final flurry occured with the clock creaking towards 120, Gamst picked out a beautiful left wing cross which the hapless Samba headed onto the post with Arsenal hearts a flutter. But the young Gunners’ held out for a memorable victory which, Hoyte in particular, celebrated vociferously in front of the 3,000 travelling fans. Blackburn more than played their part in a thoroughly absorbing tense, typically kamikaze cup tie, their fight back deserves immense credit. But, just as the first team are demonstrating, these kids have the fire to match the finesse.LD.