Arsenal are heading to Wembley after brave Ipswich finally succumb
Carling Cup semi-final second leg: Arsenal 3 Ipswich Town 0 (Aggregate 3-1)
AFTER all these years, suddenly it seems the Carling Cup is worth taking seriously after all.
For the first time in four years, since they were beaten in the final of the same competition by Chelsea in Cardiff, Arsenal are in a cup final.
While brave Ipswich held out for an hour to add to their first-leg heroics, the Championship side simply could not contain the Gunners any longer and were brushed aside with three goals in 18 minutes.
Arsenal will head to Wembley on February 27 and look to end the trophy drought that stretches back almost six years, to May 2005.
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The Carling Cup may have its detractors, and none more so than Arsenal and Arsene Wenger for well over a decade, but this season it has represented an opportunity for this group of players to show they are winners, and it is a task that they have warmed to from the outset.
Wins over the Premier League trio of Tottenham, Newcastle and Wigan had been pedestrian, but Ipswich made the Gunners sweat before finally succumbing in the second leg.
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But Arsenal did not panic, stuck to their guns and prevailed. It was another test of this side in a month of unrelenting challenges, but they once again found the answers.
Just as in the first leg in Suffolk, Wenger played a strong side. Of Saturday’s starting XI against Wigan only Alex Song, Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri were omitted, and they were on the bench.
Wenger had openly criticised his players after the 1-0 defeat at Portman Road, and they looked eager to wipe out that deficit from the off, only to once again meet a determined and disciplined blue wall of resistance.
The early rhythm was disrupted when Wojciech Szczesny came for a corner and clattered into his team-mate Bacary Sagna, allowing Gareth McAuley a header the defender should perhaps have done better with but looped over the bar.
The damage to Sagna was longer-lasting and, after lengthy treatment, the dazed defender was led off and replaced by Emmanuel Eboue.
The game wasn’t going quite according to plan. When Robin Van Persie thundered a header against the crossbar shortly afterwards and then Cesc Fabregas clipped a shot agonisingly wide, the Emirates crowd began to feel that this was perhaps not going to be a night of simple progress to Wembley.
The Championship side were diligent in defence and also offered a threat in attack, with the precocious 17-year-old Connor Wickham keeping Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny on their toes.
At half-time there were a few worried looks around the ground, and while their frustrations did not ease immediately, redemption was on its way.
Just past the hour mark Nicklas Bendtner ran on to a long ball from Jack Wilshere, cut inside and curled a shot past Marton Fulop and inside the post. After 150 minutes, Arsenal had finally found a way past the Tractor Boys’ rearguard.
They did so again almost instantly. From a Cesc Fabregas corner on the left, Koscielny rose highest as Fulop came and didn’t claim, and thumped a header into the net.
Arsenal were ahead for the first time in the tie and, momentarily, it looked like Ipswich would implode. But the East Anglians showed they are made of sterner stuff and substitute Jason Scotland broke clear on the right but hit his shot too close to Szczesny who saved well.
Arsenal still needed a third goal to ease their nerves and it was duly delivered by Fabregas, whose performance on the night certainly merited it. After exchanging passes with Andrey Arshavin on the counter-attack, the Arsenal captain clipped home a neat finish for his eighth goal of the season.
Ipswich had no answer, and you could not fault them for that. Arsenal should have made their class tell a lot earlier in this tie, but in the end waited until the final half-hour to do so.
Nevertheless it was enough, and now Wembley now awaits.
While returning there on May 28 for the Champions League final may be more akin to Wenger’s ambition, this will do nicely for starters.