Arsenal 0.v.0 Rovers
The Emirates Stadium
17th February 2007. 12:30
It wasn`t pretty and it was far from a cup classic but Rovers end there decisive week still very much in both cup competitions, although we will now have the decisive week all over again!
There was never any danger of a 6-2 mauling here as Rovers` resolute defence kept Arsenal at bay for the full ninety minutes, ensuring a reply at Ewood Park on the 28th February.
Both Arsene Wenger and Mark Hughes made changes to their teams from the sides that played in midweek. Incredibly Wenger made nine alterations with Hughes making a modest four in comparison.
On a crisp and clear lunchtime in London, Rovers kicked off and immediately sat back. The opening ten minutes passed with little incident, bar a miscued volley from Thierry Henry in the sixth minute as both sides felt each other out.
It was clear from the opening exchanges Rovers had no intention of attacking the Arsenal defence, looking nervous and tentative going forward. Shabani Nonda was the lone striker with David Dunn supporting just behind.
All the Congolese front-man had to feed off was a number of long balls over the top and some poorly executed passes from Dunn.
Rovers were content to sit with two banks of four ensuring Arsenal had to play with width and there was little chance of balls in behind or the strikers dropping off. Mokoena was excellent in stamping out any loose threats in the middle of the park but the first half belonged to the back four, all of whom played their part in neutralising Arsenal`s threat.
Ryan Nelsen was back to his commanding best often making those decisive final tackles, Stephen Warnock completely eradicated any threat from the rapid Theo Walcott out wide, and Zurab Khizanishvili and Chris Samba were resolute, timing everything to perfection.
In a barren first half there was little else to report except some wild long distance efforts from William Gallas and Mathieu Flamini.
As the teams trudged off for half-time it was clear Arsenal were frustrated and an aggressive second half would ensue.
Right from the off Arsenal looked to lift the pace. They were more direct and the passing was beginning to zip across the surface in great synchronicity.
Theo Walcott drilled a shot wide after some smart link-up play with the impressive Jeremie Aliadiere, but that was to be his last involvement. Wenger aimed to shake things up a little by replacing Walcott and a forgettable Freddie Ljungberg with danger men Thomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Adebayor with twenty minutes remaining.
By which time Matt Derbyshire had been introduced in place of an exhausted Bruno Berner. Derbyshire almost made a telling contribution as well. A glanced header from Nonda found its way through to Derbyshire on the corner of the penalty area. He showed great strength to hold off Phillipe Senderos before hooking a volley over his head that looped dangerously towards the Arsenal goal. Almunia had to scurry back onto his line and tip the ball over for Rovers` first corner.
It was the first moment of danger Rovers had created and it was so close to dipping in.
Then came a moment of controversy. Referee, Martin Atkinson, had generally performed well, despite making some questionable calls, and in some cases none at all, against Rovers, however, he missed what appeared to be an obvious penalty claim from Arsenal.
Aliadiere jinked one way and then the next in the area and a flailing leg from a Stephen Warnock lunge caught the Frenchman and he collapsed to the ground. No penalty was awarded, much to the bemusement of the Arsenal contingent.
Arsenal continued to raise the tempo but Rovers were working overtime in order to contain them, and contain them they did, well until the 83rd minute.
It is the mark of a great goalkeeper when he does nothing for 83 minutes but remains focused to make three world class saves.
First of all Rosicky burst through after a clever assist from Adebayor`s hand but Friedel was quick off his line and thwarted Little Mozart on the six yard line with his legs.
Still Friedel saved the best for his encore. Some shabby and indecisive defending from Rovers allowed Adebayor to dance his way to the by-line before pulling a ball back to Henry. His dinked effort was drifting goal-wards before Friedel diverted it at full stretch but the ball rolled invitingly into the path of the onrushing Justin Hoyte. He thumped an effort goal-ward but in the flash of an eye Friedel was up and down again to make one of the saves of the season.
There was nothing more Arsenal could throw at Rovers so they will have it all to do again at Ewood Park, when Rovers will have a number of players back from injury.
There was some sound defending throughout, which will please Mark Hughes. In particular the display of Nelsen, who has looked a little short on fitness recently, but he was back to his best here.
There was nervy and loose passing from everyone.
David Dunn is still lacking the fitness but showed he hasn`t lost any of that spark with some excellent turns and tight control.
Matt Derbyshire made a real difference when he came on. He should start against Leverkusen because he is fearless and is high on confidence at the moment.
This was going to go to Ryan Nelsen but it was his saves at the end that have ultimately kept us in the cup.
Brad Friedel 9