Woeful Arsenal stumble past Doncaster

Doncaster 2 Arsenal 2 (after extra time - Arsenal won 3-1 on penalties)

Doncaster 2 Arsenal 2 (after extra time - Arsenal won 3-1 on penalties)

Manuel Almunia salvaged boss Arsene Wenger’s Christmas with three penalty shoot-out saves to shatter League One Doncaster’s Carling Cup dream at Belle Vue.

Rovers were just seconds away from the semi-finals when Gilberto swept home Emmanuel Eboue’s cross in the 120th minute to force the nerve-racking finish.

Then Almunia – who had earlier made a dramatic double save to deny Rovers a 2-0 lead – kept his cool to save from Neil Roberts, Paul Heffernan and Paul Green.

It looked like substitute Green was destined to be the hero after he pounced on defensive hesitation by Philippe Senderos to poke Rovers in front for the second time in the 104th minute.

But Wenger – whose bad week was looking like getting a whole lot worse after his side had been dumped out of the title race – raced from his dugout in delight when his Brazilian midfielder grabbed a dramatic lifeline.

The result was incredibly harsh on the home side who looked certain to make the Gunners their third and biggest Premiership scalp of an amazing cup run.

Rovers had stunned a visitors side featuring the likes of Senderos, Robin van Persie and Alexander Hleb to storm into a fourth-minute lead.

McIndoe latched onto Paul Heffernan’s through-ball in the left side of the box and poked the ball past advancing keeper Almunia.

The Gunners reacted well and came close to an equaliser in the 13th minute when Hleb attempted to square to Arturo Lupoli in front of goal, only for defender Steve Roberts to intercept.

But Rovers were far from daunted by the prospect of having to hold onto the lead and a surging left-wing run by Guy once again stretched the Gunners defence.

With the visitors slowly starting to take control, Van Persie tried a surging run through the middle which was ended by a cracking Roberts challenge which left both men on the deck.

Van Persie’s problem looked the more serious and despite the Dutchman hobbling back onto the pitch, he was replaced by Nicklas Bendtner in the 32nd minute.

In fact Van Persie’s last touch had almost presented the Gunners with an equalising chance, finding Owusu-Abeyie whose ball in from the right was deflected behind by Steve Foster.

Coppinger thought he had sent Guy clean through in the 36th minute for Rovers but the linesman’s flag went up very late as Almunia charged to the edge of his box to knock clear.

Arsenal had their best first-half chance in the 37th minute when Bendtner latched onto Lupoli’s superbly weighted cross and his header brought a wonderful, acrobatic save out of Budtz.

Lupoli’s appeals for a penalty in first-half injury time were waved away, then immediately at the other end Guy crossed to Sean Thornton whose goal-bound effort was blocked in the six-yard box.

After riding a brief storm early in the second half, Rovers fashioned two glorious chances in two minutes to move within touching distance of the semi-finals.

First Almunia proved equal to Thornton’s powerful drive from the edge of the box, then moments later he parried Heffernan’s low effort and somehow scrambled to block the point-blank follow-up from Guy.

Suddenly Rovers were rampant, Guy turning Johan Djourou inside-out to claim a corner which was hacked away by a jittery visiting defence.

But the Gunners hit back in an end-to-end affair with Hleb causing problems and bringing a fine block out of Budtz just past the hour mark.

And Wenger’s men were level in the 63rd minute when Owusu-Abeyie cut in from the left flank and fired a shot which took a huge deflection off Thornton and found its way into the back of the net.

Rovers responded well with McIndoe finding more space on the left and flinging in a dangerous cross which was narrowly missed by both home strikers.

But the Gunners were as expected finishing normal time the strongest and Budtz was called into action to stop efforts from Alex Song and Hleb.

Bendtner came close four minutes into extra-time for Arsenal, his first shot in the box blocked by Nick Fenton and his second from the rebound deflecting off Budtz’s knee to safety.

Substitute Green pounced on Senderos’ mistake to seemingly poke Rovers into the last four in the 104th minute – before Gilberto’s dramatic equaliser forced the shoot-out.

And if any Gunners star deserved to be their hero it was Almunia who had kept his side in the game during a torrid second-half spell.

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