By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 3-0 IPSWICH (Arsenal win 3-1 on aggregate)
Most people have a friend who is the life and soul of any party. Engaging, witty and magnetic, they're the popular kind of person that makes any gathering worth going to.
Well, last night at The Emirates was like a house party where that friend promised to show up but took their time to arrive. This was meant to be a night of celebration, with the task of beating Ipswich a mere formality on the road to the Carling Cup final.
While the stage was set, Ipswich played the frustrating role of party-poopers. They set up a wall of blue between Arsenal and their goal. Whenever Arsenal approached Ipswich's penalty area, their passing went alarmingly awry. Both Cesc Fabregas & Andrey Arshavin were major culprits in this respect. Despite near misses by Fabregas & Robin Van Persie, the tempo was flat, and the anxiety built to unbearable levels. The atmosphere quickly changed from excitable to agitated, and this spread to the players. As the half-time whistle went, Ipswich had held on to their one goal lead from the 1st leg, and their away support was in fine voice.
This party was looking like a complete washout. While referee Mark Halsey was not helping matters by continuously allowing Ipswich to cynically foul the Arsenal players - how Connor Wickham stayed on the pitch for an awful tackle on Johan Djourou is beyond me - this was increasingly looking like an evening where you wished you'd have stayed at home.
And then the door burst open. The "friend" arrived. After 150 minutes of the tie, Arsenal finally found a way past Ipswich's rearguard. Nicklas Bendtner scoring a fine goal after picking up a superb pass from Jack Wilshere. Three minutes later Laurent Koscielny (having his best game in an Arsenal shirt) capitalised on a mistake from Marton Fulop to head Arsenal into the lead.
Sometimes it doesn't matter if your popular friend shows up late. Because as long as they do show up, you know you'll have a night to remember. And sure enough, the anxiety of the past hour was now forgotten. The frustrated catcalls of the crowd dissipated into the ether. It became a night that Arsenal fans will talk about for years to come, telling all their friends, "You weren't there for the Ipswich game? You sure missed out, what a night!"
Fabregas added a third to make the game safe, and in a nice touch at full-time, he assembled the players together to applaud each corner of the ground - yet another riposte to those who say he lacks leadership qualities.
This was not a vintage performance from the Gunners. Too many players were below par, and it took sterling work from the back four combined with a star turn from Wilshere to see Arsenal through. But it may do them some good to find a way to win when they're not operating at their maximum. It's what winners do.
And as Arsenal fans left The Emirates in the highest of spirits, this may prove to be a prelude to an even bigger party at Wembley in a month's time.
Szcsezny - 7, Sagna - 6 (Eboue - 6), Djourou - 7, Koscielny - 8, Clichy - 7, Denilson - 7, Wilshere - 8, Bendtner - 7, Fabregas - 6, Arshavin - 6 (Walcott - 85 min), Van Persie - 6 (Nasri 85 min)