Arsenal 1 Leeds United 1: Gunners grab late FA Cup equaliser
FOR Leeds United, rehabilitation continues apace.
A year on from claiming the notable scalp of Manchester United in the FA Cup third round, the Yorkshire club came within a minute of repeating the trick at the home of another Premier League giant.
The fact that Arsenal ultimately rescued a replay in dramatic fashion, courtesy of Cesc Fabregas slamming a late penalty past Kasper Schmeichel, may have been a disappointment to Leeds and the near 9,000-strong travelling army of fans that had descended on the capital.
But any feelings of despondency among the visiting hordes from Yorkshire at the final whistle were out-weighed by a huge sense of pride at witnessing what, following on from last season's Cup heroics and promotion success, was surely another step on the club's road to recovery.
In front of a national television audience, Leeds underlined once again the huge progress that is being made under Simon Grayson.
Four days on from the world's richest club coming to the Emirates Stadium and battening down the hatches to grind out a precious point in the title race, the United manager bravely sent his side out with orders to take the game to their hosts.
The reward for such an ambitious approach came early in the second half when Robert Snodgrass netted his third goal since Christmas, a strike that until the very last minute looked like being enough to condemn the Gunners to a first FA Cup defeat on home soil in almost 14 years.
George Graham's Leeds had been the visitors on that occasion when Rod Wallace netted the only goal of the game at Highbury.
Grayson, while disappointed not to have emulated the achievement of a Scot more readily associated with N5, was understandably proud of his side's efforts in upsetting the odds.
He said: "We had nothing to lose before the game. No-one expected us to get anything and I felt that if we had to go down, we may as well do so by having a go.
"To be honest, I don't have too many players who can sit back and defend anyway – as our goals conceded record in the Championship shows.
"But I thought it important that we went to Arsenal and tried to play. The players deserve tremendous credit and it was testament to their efforts that Arsenal had to bring their top players (Fabregas and Theo Walcott) off the bench."
A measure of just how well United performed came after the final whistle when a large swathe of home fans stayed behind to applaud the visitors from the field – an accolade afforded only Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium last season.
Such a reaction from the locals was understandable after the polished manner in which Leeds had set about their task of, first, matching Arsenal, before then unloading their own attacking armoury after the break.
The tone was set early on when Alex Bruce, back in the side after injury, ensured the home side knew they were in for an almighty battle with a couple of robust challenges.
With Andy O'Brien also putting 10 years of top-flight experience to good use alongside his defensive partner and the United midfield snapping at the heels of the opposition, Wenger's side was restricted to just a couple of genuine openings during the opening 45 minutes, despite dominating much of the possession.
The first of those came when a sublime through-ball from Tomas Rosicky allowed Andrei Arshavin to scamper clear only for the Russian's shot to be blocked by Kasper Schmeichel who had been quick off his line.
Then, just before the half-hour, it was captain Jonny Howson's turn to come to the rescue with a clearance off the line after Sebastien Squillaci had scuffed a shot goalwards.
Those two efforts apart, however, Schmeichel was well protected by his team-mates.
Clearly buoyed by having largely shackled the Gunners, Leeds started the second half in confident mood.
Eight minutes of the second period had elapsed when a neat United passing move ended with Denilson, the only member of Wenger's starting line-up yet to be capped at senior international level, upending Max Gradel with a poorly executed tackle.
Referee Phil Dowd had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Snodgrass did the rest by drilling firmly under goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
At this stage, United could have been forgiven for trying to protect what they had.
Instead, they poured forward in search of a second goal that almost came when Argentine striker Luciano Becchio met Snodgrass's corner with a powerful header that Szczesny did brilliantly to turn away.
Snodgrass, a thorn in the side of the home team, then fired a free-kick inches wide with the Polish goalkeeper rooted to his line before Arsenal finally roused themselves in the final quarter following the introduction of Fabregas and Walcott from the bench.
Even so, United remained on course to end the Gunners' proud 28-game unbeaten record on home soil in the FA Cup under Wenger.
That was, however, until the 90th minute when Walcott got the wrong side of Ben Parker, whose response was to tug at the England international's shirt.
As with the Leeds penalty, Dowd had no alternative but to point to the spot and Fabregas duly took advantage by slamming the ball past Schmeichel to spare the Gunners' blushes.
Hero: Alex Bruce
An imperious display from a defender who set the tone with two crunching early tackles that told Arsenal that the visitors from the Championship would not be intimidated.
Villain: Nicklas Bendtner
If a striker is going to spend weeks complaining about not being in the starting line-up then he has to deliver when given a chance – something the Dane plainly didn't do.
90th minute: Ben Parker's tug on Theo Walcott brought about the penalty and Cesc Fabregas took advantage by firing in the equaliser.
Phil Dowd: Got both penalty awards right, though just what he was thinking to give offside on 89 minutes after initially pointing to the spot is a mystery only he can answer.
Another tremendous Cup display by Leeds, who can now look forward to another big occasion under the Elland Road floodlights when Arsenal travel to West Yorkshire for next week's replay.
Quote of the day
We forgot that you were here ...
– the Leeds fans politely point out that the 'Highbury Library' atmosphere has followed Arsenal to their new home.
Leeds United v Scunthorpe United; Saturday January 15, 2011; Championship.
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