Arsenal 3 Shrewsbury Town 1
Carling Cup nights are something of a different experience- particularly at home games. The atmosphere takes on a more relaxed air, as a mixture of those that don`t get to go often and the lack of intensity towards the result lead to a pleasant evening usually. But with the club in its biggest funk for some years and the pressure of League Two opposition to swat aside, it felt different tonight. An incredibly nervy first half compounded the uncertainty and turned it into all out tension. Arsene went with fringe players with a sprinkling of experience. The likes of Chamakh and Benayoun starting whilst Djourou wore the captain`s armband. Unfortunately, it didn`t imbue Johan with any mystical powers and he ended up looking as distinctly lower league as anyone else on offer.
The Gunners reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, with Ju-Young Park given license to wander behind Chamakh. Arsenal looked to have settled into the groove after just 100 seconds when Kieran Gibbs` hanging cross from left back found Chamakh inside the six yard area, but his close range header was turned away by Shrews keeper Ben Smith. The Moroccan ought really to have scored with a gilt edged opportunity some three minutes later. The impressive Coquelin- the only player on the pitch that looked close to Premiership standard across the 90 minutes- dropped a shoulder and ghosted his way past Grandison, then had the presence of mind to pull the ball back for Chamakh. But he was far too casual with a finish that was beaten out by the legs of Smith.
After that breathless start, Arsenal appeared, bafflingly, to revert to panic stations. The sight of Shrewsbury confidently knocking the ball around made them fill their big girl`s knickers with excrement and invited the League Two side onto them as a result. Mark Wright latched onto Luke Ainsworth`s pass from the left and scuffed a shot towards the corner. Fabianski showed quite appalling judgement, allowing it to drift onto the post. Marvin Morgan`s follow up was blocked by Gibbs. The away side visibly grew in correlation with the home side`s balls shrinking and they took a shock lead on 17 minutes.
Marvin Morgan tossed in a wicked ball from the right. For some reason I can`t quite fathom, Johan Djourou ducked and allowed James Collins to head the ball into Fabianski`s net. Djourou must be close to slipping behind Squillaci in the pecking order now. It seems it was more than just his shoulder that went at Old Trafford in March. Shrewsbury scented blood and were unfortunate not to grab a second. First when Wright`s dangerous shot was deflected wide by Djourou. But most glaringly when Ainsworth`s corner flashed in front of Fabianski, who, stricken by panic, stood and watched as Sean McAllister`s glancing header drifted half an inch wide.
But Arsenal rode the storm and finished the half back on top. On 34 minutes, relief poured through the stadium when Jenkinson`s right wing cross was touched on by Chamakh and Kieran Gibbs popped up undetected at the back post to bundle a header past Ben Smith and into the corner. The resulting, witless chant of "who are ya?" from the Arsenal fans has to rank amongst the most embarrassing moments of my Arsenal supporting life. Surely we`re above that after equalising at home to a side three divisions below us?
Ju-Young Park had a busy, if slightly ineffective night. But he came close at the death throes of the half when he collected Coquelin`s pass on the left, opened his body out and curled an effort just past the post with Smith floundering. Emmanuel Frimpong`s low free kick was also clawed nervously away by Smith in first half injury time. There was plenty to suggest that the Shrews keeper was worth shooting at from range. Something Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may have had in mind at half time. But as halves of football go, it was pretty close to the nadir of the manager`s reign, simply because Shrewsbury deserved parity at least. Not in the sense that they shut up shop, defended well and ground out a 0-0 at half time. But because they took us on at the passing game, created plenty and looked plenty better than us at our own game for prolonged spells.
Come the second half, you could sense Arsenal had settled down and that their fitness began to tell. Though the Shrews still offered threat on the counter. Oxlade-Chamberlain became a central figure of the game after a quiet first half. With Coquelin feeding him with plenty of beautifully sprayed passes. Frimpong again tested Smith from range, but a positive forward run from a central position, followed by a fulminating twenty five yard drive proved too much for Smith to handle as he let it squirm underneath him and into the net to allow Arsenal the lead. Invigorated with confidence, Chamberlain tried another strike from an acute angle which stung Smith`s palms.
The Shrews began to tire, though still found space to counter attack time and again with only Coquelin`s tireless industry offering any kind of barrier. But Arsenal sealed progression some eleven minutes from time, when substitute Oguzhan Ozyakup plundered to the by line and cut the ball back for Yossi Benayoun to prod home his first Gunners goal from close range. In the end, the result and progression to the next round is the bottom line. I think the game was rather more uncomfortable than most of us would have liked. The fear and panic that gripped the team for a large section of the first half was a real worry.
Shrewsbury can be very proud of their performance and if they maintain those standards, it won`t be long before they are in League One. On the evidence of the first half, you could probably say much the same about Arsenal! I`m sure Carl Jenkinson has a lot of potential, but having been thrown in so early into a traumatic spell of games, he looks a long, long way from being an Arsenal player just yet and could probably do with some honing in the reserves for now. Some of the £50m kicking around Arsenal`s TPA should probably also be used to pay the ransom to whoever kidnapped Johan Djourou and replaced him with Gus Caesar`s Granddad. Fabianski`s performance raised the grim spectre of Manuel Almunia being recalled from his feral lifestyle in the woods.
Marouane Chamakh did a passable impersonation of the invisible man. That said, there were positives. Coquelin was on the bench ahead of Frimpong on Saturday and on this display, one can see why. Equally as tigerish in the tackle but with cultured distribution to match. The Ox left his stamp on the second half with telling contributions too. He tried to do a little too much at times, but that will hopefully be corrected with games. I thought Kieran Gibbs had a really positive second half too. Overall, it`s probably churlish to be anything more than satisfied with the progression. That`s what the cup is all about. History doesn`t record that you looked wobbly for 20 minutes. But it does have a nasty habit of replaying you Mickey Thomas` free kick in 1992. I`ll settle for Aldershot away in the next round I think. LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 25.JENKINSON, 20.DJOUROU(c), 49.MIQUEL, 28.GIBBS, 15.CHAMBERLAIN (34.Aneke), 26.FRIMPONG (53.Ozyakup `77), 39.COQUELIN, 30.BENAYOUN, 9.J-Y.PARK (31.Ryo `72), 29,CHAMAKH. Unused: 37.Boateng, 55.Watt, 56.Yennaris, 58.Martinez.
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