By Shane Thomas
LEEDS 1-3 ARSENAL
Arsenal walked into the fiery cauldron of Elland Road and forged themselves a resilient 3-1 victory in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. The Gunners produced a much improved display from their recent travails against Championship opposition to send their travelling away support back to North London very happy & send sections (albeit small ones) of the home support leaving early to derisive chants of, "We can see you sneaking out!"
The nature of the support was a major part of the evening for me. It's said that you can't count yourself as a true fan of your club until you watch them on their travels. Well this was my first away game watching Arsenal and the stereotype of 'Gooners' being on the quiet side was put to rest as they happily took on the mass of Leeds fans in terms of fervour. Elland Road was a cauldron of noise, with the sound of both sets of support banging on the seats, walls and anything they could find to create a febrile atmosphere. The Arsenal fans seemed to relish their role as the underdogs in this singing contest, giving as good as they got. Chants of "You're just a small town in Tottenham" were riposted with "You're not famous any more!" When Theo Walcott warmed up to catcalls of "Cheat", Arsenal fans responded with supportive cheers of "Theo, Theo!"
As for the game, stand-in captain Samir Nasri gave Arsenal an early lead after five minutes, capitalising on good work from an improved Andrey Arshavin & Marouane Chamakh. This was crucial in establishing a foothold for Arsenal, relieving any potential pressure that Leeds would have wanted to apply in the opening exchanges.
But it helped that Simon Grayson made a tactical misstep from the start. Grayson gambled by playing Max Gradel up front alongside Billy Paynter (who played in the absence of the injured Luciano Becchio). However, this left Leeds a man light in midfield and Becchio's industry in attack was badly missed. Also, their most potent attacking threat, Robert Snodgrass was marooned on the right wing with Kieran Gibbs and Arshavin both endeavouring - with much success - in keeping the Leeds dangerman quiet.
What impressed most about Arsenal was not their slick passing and movement, but their industry in regaining possession. Every team has to earn the right to play their football (Barcelona being a perfect example) and Arsenal were willing to work at the coalface to ensure that they could bask in the splendour of the boardroom. And it looked as if Arsenal were going to bask for the rest of the match after a sustained spell of pressure brought a second goal. Bacary Sagna - who had a faultless match - rifling the ball past the impressive Kasper Schmeichel from a tight angle to seemingly end the contest.
But Leeds are nothing if not obstinate opposition, and a questionable refereeing decision reignited the tie. Arshavin looked to have been pulled back by Snodgrass. Referee Mike Dean allowed play to continue and after clearing Snodgrass's cross, the ball found its way to Bradley Johnson. Johnson has been called "micro-brain" by some Leeds fans, but there was nothing witless about his stunning long range effort which found the corner of Wojech Szcsezny's net. 2-1, and it was game on again.
Arsenal controlled the second-half but began to tire and almost conceded an equaliser to substitute David Somma. Shrewdly noticing his team's fatigue, Wenger summoned Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie from the bench, which by anyone's standards are some heavy-duty reinforcements. They provided the requisite alacrity that was fading from the starting XI, with Van Persie nodding home a sumptuous cross from the tireless Nicklas Bendtner to seal a well-earned victory.
With wins in their past two matches, Arsenal look to have got their season back on track. They have a crucial Carling Cup game against Ipswich next Tuesday, but the fact that they made such good work of defeating Leeds in such a daunting atmosphere shows that the desire for success at Arsenal burns strong, which may result in at least one trip down the road to Wembley later this season.
Szcsezny - 6, Sagna - 8, Djourou - 7, Koscielny - 7, Gibbs - 7, Denilson - 6, Song - 7, Bendtner - 6, Nasri - 7 (Clichy - 6), Chamakh - 6 (Fabregas - 7), Arshavin - 6 (Van Persie - 7)
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