Arsenal v Leeds United: Pride and deflation for heroic Whites

Go out fighting, Simon Grayson urged, but Leeds United in his image are not renowned for admirable failure.

Arsenal were prepared for a fight on Saturday and only the naive among their stellar squad could have taken his comments as an acceptance of defeat.

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Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal captain, had Grayson's number, stating in the match-day programme that "teams like this are sometimes the most dangerous" at a stage of the FA Cup where upsets can happen and usually do.

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Exactly how dangerous became apparent when Arsenal's captain heard the call of crisis around 2pm on Saturday.

Those who know their history know that Leeds, with Grayson at their head, have a habit of causing mischief in the third round of the FA Cup. At their most inspired, they are capable of worse than that.

United at home is the draw from hell in the early weeks of January, a riotous occasion that managers of Arsene Wenger's ilk can do without.

Leeds left carnage in their wake at Manchester United last season and were minutes from provoking a night of recriminations in north London.

"To go out today would have been a shocker," said Wenger, his brow as furrowed as Sir Alex Ferguson's 12 months earlier. Fabregas' penalty at the point of execution saved the Frenchman's skin.

Wenger was obliged to turn to his captain and most high-profile substitute in the 59th minute, five minutes after Robert Snodgrass' goal drained blood from the faces of Arsenal's staff. Theo Walcott followed him off the bench and drew the penalty that Fabregas buried in the final second of normal time. Never has Wenger felt so blessed to have replacements of that calibre at his disposal.

Grayson made no attempt to second-guess Arsenal's line-up, predicting only that its strength would be ridiculous.

Fabregas and Walcott should have been no more than window-dressing behind a starting side of rich repute, but they gave Wenger the chance to roll a dice that was otherwise loaded against him.

"The fact that those two players came on at all tells you all you need to know," said Grayson.

There was pride in his voice but deflation too. As he spoke, the picture in his dressing room must have been more desolate, depressed by the timing of Fabregas' equaliser.

The honour belonged to Grayson and his players but it was no substitute for the sensation they threatened in the capital, a Championship club thrown against one who could win four elite trophies this season.

Financially and aesthetically, a replay was in United's best interests; their squad, on the other hand, will suffer no greater injustice this season than Arsenal's stumbling escape.

United had dodged a bullet seconds before Fabregas' goal, benefiting from Phil Dowd's reading of a foul on Walcott inside their box.

The referee – a late but very able replacement for the injured Chris Foy – initially penalised Alex Bruce's trip but performed a brave about-turn when he spotted an offside flag on the far touchline.

Theatrical though Walcott's collapse was, replays supported Dowd's original decision.

Leeds' huge gathering of supporters breathed a sigh of collective relief, assuming that Utopia was in sight. But before Grayson's defence could gather their thoughts, Walcott tempted Ben Parker to pull his shirt eight yards from goal and leave Dowd with no choice to make.

"I'd have been disappointed if we'd not got that at the other end of the field," admitted Grayson.

Fabregas' CV is that of a footballer with winners' medals from both the World Cup and the Champions League; the pressure of his opportunity did not prevent him from driving a penalty into the middle of Kasper Schmeichel's net.

Relief shone in his eyes as he turned away. Wenger, too, was able to crack his first smile of the afternoon.

Wenger's press conference afterwards was something of an inquest. "This was not my wish before the game," he said, reflecting on a third-round replay at Elland Road.

Grayson had no reason to begin a post-mortem, commending his players en masse and his defence in particular for their exceptional poise and nerveless application.

There was irony in the fact that an area of Grayson's team so often pilloried this season chose the Emirates Stadium for their finest hour-and-a-half. Bruce's recall in place of Neill Collins was justified within minutes, sacrificing power in the air for attributes more suited to Arsenal's fluent, invasive style.

His claim to the man-of-the-match award was overwhelming, though Fabregas later supported the case for Schmeichel, the difference in injury-time between a replay and a devastating defeat.

It was not the first time Wenger had looked on as members of the Bruce and Schmeichel families gave him nightmares. "Maybe these two names want to make my life difficult for ever," he said.

There was a danger amid commendations of Grayson's defence that the performance of his team would be equated with and remembered in the style of the Alamo. Moments of anxiety came and went before Fabregas' equaliser, but Snodgrass' finish rattled Arsenal and carried Leeds through the last half-hour in a flush of adrenalin. A second goal eluded them narrowly.

Wojciech Szczesny's reaction to Luciano Becchio's 66th-minute header, beating it clear with one hand, prevented a cut from which Arsenal would have bled to death and the introduction of Fabregas and Walcott was a direct response from a manager whose team were losing their way.

A goalless first half warned him of serious trouble ahead.

Arsenal chipped away at Leeds before the break without consistent success. An organised defence and a disciplined midfield created a level of congestion that Arsenal despised, tying them down for all but a period of 10 minutes around the half-hour mark.

Numerous stray passes were not to Wenger's liking.

Grayson crossed his fingers for the first time when Andrey Arshavin anticipated Tomas Rosicky's through-ball and found Schmeichel blocking his path in the 11th minute, a juncture at which a goal for Arsenal would have caused disarray amongst their visitors, but United's manager was asked to trust to luck less often than he feared.

Jonathan Howson flicked Sebastien Squillaci's shot off his goalline when Arshavin's corner dropped into the six-yard box and Becchio did likewise with a Marouane Chamakh header.

Half-time was approaching and Schmeichel's resistance against Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner – both of whom attacked him with intent –

maintained sanity until the second half. The explosion when it came was immense.

Arsenal's tails wagged again when the game resumed but they had no defence against the rash tackle from Denilson which hacked Max Gradel to the ground in the 54th minute. United's support reacted to the award of a penalty with ferocity which would have convinced those outside the stadium that Leeds had already scored. Snodgrass kept them bouncing by forcing the ball under Szczesny's body.

His goal teased a classic tie from a game which had otherwise kept its powder dry. Fabregas was asked to restore order from the bench and did so slowly, though Szczesny's save from Becchio was pivotal.

It left Arsenal chasing an equaliser that arrived when few in the stadium expected it.

Dowd's first refusal of a penalty appeal from Walcott sent members of the home crowd spilling towards the exits but Parker was punished during Arsenal's next attack, the cue for Fabregas to drag his team out of the mire. Only Schmeichel's save from Denilson in injury-time denied Arsenal the chance to have their cake and eat it.

Arsenal's manager is part of a large fellowship in English football who believe that the country's top division is poorer without the presence of Leeds.

"The Premier League has missed them," he said, in a generous statement before kick-off. The prospect of engaging United twice in 10 days might tempt him to retract that comment.

Arsenal: Szczesny, Eboue, Squillaci, Djourou, Gibbs, Rosicky (Vela 79), Denilson, Song (Fabregas 59), Arshavin, Chamakh (Walcott 68), Bendtner. Subs (not used): Ramsey, Fabianski, Clichy, Miquel.

Leeds United: Schmeichel, Connolly, Bruce, O'Brien, Parker, Watt (Bromby 76), Howson, Johnson, Gradel (Hughes 90), Snodgrass, Becchio (Somma 85). Subs (not used): Higgs, Collins, McCormack, Paynter.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Attendance: 59,520.

Richie Myler.

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