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An 83rd-minute Paul Dickov penalty and the FA Cup quarter-final was decided. Football breathed a sigh of relief: there are those who would have rather plucked out their eyes than watch Blackburn Rovers play Leicester City again.

Mark Hughes, Rovers' manager, has protested against the image of his side as dour and physical, but theirs is a glory lacking lustre.

While Arsenal and Manchester United seek salvation from trophyless seasons and Newcastle continue the eternal battle with their own demons in this weekend's semi-finals, Blackburn scuffle on, hoping that their first FA Cup match against Premiership opposition this season will bring also their first win away from Ewood Park.

Yet beating Arsenal on Saturday does not seem to be a hope held with great conviction, even in Blackburn. Of the four semi-finalists, they are the only ones not to have sold out their allocation, with just 16,500 making the journey to Cardiff. Getting there for a 12.15 kick-off is awkward, but, given that Rovers have not been so far in the competition since 1960, it seems an oddly flat response. After all, it may only be 10 years since they won the Premiership, but it is not often that teams of Blackburn's stature are two games from silverware.

As Hughes says, Blackburn's season-long struggle against relegation should not disguise the fact that they are much improved in recent weeks. That in part is down to the form of the Norwegian midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen, who has already scored three in the FA Cup this season, but more to do with a stiffening of the defensive sinews.

Hughes has deployed the South African Aaron Mokoena in a holding role between the defence and midfield and the extra cover that has provided has inspired Andy Todd to the form of his life at centre-back, while the New Zealand international Ryan Nelsen has been a revelation alongside him. Mokoena will have a vital role today in picking up whichever of Dennis Bergkamp and José Antonio Reyes starts in the hole.

It may not be pretty, but for now it is enough that Blackburn have become "resolute and determined", even if that sounds suspiciously like managerspeak for dour and physical. If the terminology is in doubt, the success of the policy is not. Only two goals have been conceded in their past nine games, a run in which they have lost only once, lifting them comfortably clear of the bottom three.

That one defeat, though, was to Arsenal. Hughes has admitted his side were "jaded" then and has promised "a different Rovers" today, and there could be a significant difference in terms of personnel, with Robbie Savage likely to be named as substitute after a six-week absence with a groin injury. The Rovers captain Garry Flitcroft has also been passed fit to play, despite having eight stitches in his shin following last week's victory over Southampton.

Arsenal, by contrast, will be without two senior players. Most significantly, Thierry Henry has a groin injury, while Sol Campbell, despite playing twice for the reserves, is considered not to have recovered sufficiently from the ankle ailment he suffered against Manchester United at the beginning of February.

Arsenal have prospered defensively without him, at least once the hapless Pascal Cygan was finally jettisoned. In the eight games they have played since the inclusion of the Swiss 20-year-old Philippe Senderos, they have conceded only twice. With Edu also returning to fitness, Arsenal look as solid now as they have done since surrendering their 49-game unbeaten run in October. Four 1-0 wins in their last five games suggests a chastened team unlikely to return to the heady, happy-go-lucky style of the autumn.

It is hard to imagine an Arsène Wenger side ever being unwatchable, but with Henry absent and both sides revelling in a new-found stinginess, football may be counting its blessings that FA Cup semi-finals these days go to extra-time and penalties rather than a replay.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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