It would be perverse to seek elimination from the FA Cup, particularly if – like Arsenal – you have won the trophy four times in the past nine years.
The Gunners could, though, be forgiven for mixed feelings about the 77th minute header by Kolo Toure that spared them that fate and secured a 1-1 draw against Bolton Wanderers on Sunday. An extra match was the last thing they wanted with their fixture list already crowded by Champions League and League Cup commitments. When that replay is at their least favourite venue, Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, the prospect is still less enticing.
Bolton would be worthy and appropriate finalists in the year when the FA Cup is due to return to Wembley. They were the first winners there in 1923 and participants in perhaps the most famous (Stanley Matthews’ triumph with Blackpool in 1953) and poignant (Manchester United’s post-Munich air crash appearance in 1958) finals at the old stadium.
They also retain, in spite of the branding of their stadium, an unmistakeable whiff of the authentic. They are English football’s most consistently effective challengers to its ruling quartet, with three consecutive finishes of eighth or better.
Those qualities were on full show in the first FA Cup tie at the Emirates.
While under territorial pressure for most of a sporadically entertaining first half, they came close to scoring when Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia had to claw a Kevin Davies header off the line in the second minute.
Alongside the often-cited industrial qualities of their football, epitomised by the persevering Davies, there are subtler virtues represented by the understated, intelligent midfield industry of Kevin Nolan and Spanish veteran Ivan Campo.
It was Nolan who gave them a far from undeserved lead four minutes after the break, his subtle flick releasing Nicholas Anelka – warmly received by old friend Thierry Henry, but not the Emirates crowd on visiting his former club – who played Davies into a shooting chance on the right. Davies seemed to miscue, but found Nolan, who calmly shot past Almunia.
It was what the game needed. Both crowd and Arsenal came to life. Cesc Fabregas, a fresh generation’s exemplar of Spanish midfield virtue, began to make an impact in the opposing half and the tempo rose perceptibly. Yet Bolton might have sealed it only three minutes after their goal when Almunia had to charge out to intercept after a sublime Campo pass set Nolan free.
It looked for half an hour as though famously Francophone Arsenal might founder on the rock of two French speakers – Bolton’s centre-back pairing of Senegalese Abdoulaye Faye and Ivorian Abdoulaye Mete. They, and alertly athletic keeper Jussi Jaaskeleinen, withstood everything thrown at them. But with 13 minutes to go a free-kick was flicked on by a Bolton head and Toure, another Ivorian, stooped for a downward header that bounced high enough to beat Jaaskeleinen and earn Arsenal that troublesome replay.
■West Bromwich Albion booked their place in the last 16 of the FA Cup with a 3-0 win at local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers. Diomansy Kamara put the visitors ahead in the 44th minute, while the second half goals came from Kevin Phillips and Zoltan Gera.
Manchester City recovered from going a goal behind to beat Southampton 3-1 at Eastlands. Kenwyne Jones gave the Saints the lead in the 23rd minute but Darius Vassell levelled three minutes later. Joey Barton and DaMarcus Beasley scored City’s other goals.
Meanwhile, Stuart Pearce, Manchester City’s manager, confirmed he has accepted the job of succeeding Peter Taylor as England Under-21 coach. However, City said on its official website that it had “not given permission for our manager to be released for England duty”.
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