Arsene Wenger admitted he was braced for Carling Cup humiliation before watching his Arsenal side stage a great escape to claim a penalty shoot-out win over Doncaster.
Only an equaliser from Gilberto in injury time at the end of extra-time earned the Gunners their second chance after League One Rovers had twice taken a quarter-final lead.
And after seeing keeper Manuel Almunia win the tie by making three top-class saves from the spot, Wenger said: “When there are 60 seconds to go and you are away from home, 99% of the time you are out.
“But you have to try to get in the goal and the credit to my team is that they tried until the last second.”
Wenger hailed match-winner Almunia, who also pulled off a series of stunning saves early in the second half to deny ambitious Rovers a 2-0 advantage.
“Our keeper kept us in the game at the start of the second half,” Wenger added. “We showed a good Arsenal spirit and fought until the last seconds of the game and were rewarded.”
Rovers substitute Paul Green had looked likely to be his side’s hero after poking them in front in the 104th minute following hesitation in the Gunners’ box.
Home boss Dave Penney said: “We’re just disappointed we conceded with 30 seconds to go, but for us to run them as close as we did is fantastic.”
Rovers deserved every credit for the way they took the game to a young Gunners side studded with established Premiership talent like Alexander Hleb, Robin van Persie and Philippe Senderos.
And jammed Belle Vue was in uproar as early as the fourth minute when Michael McIndoe latched onto Paul Heffernan’s through-ball and poked the ball past Almunia.
Despite the best efforts of the Gunners’ best outfield player Arturo Lupoli, the Premiership giants were struggling to make an impression on a resolute Rovers defence.
And the Gunners’ chances worsened when van Persie hobbled off just past the half hour with a knee injury which may rule him out of the festive programme.
Arsenal had their best first-half chance in the 37th minute when van Persie’s replacement Nicklas Bendtner latched onto Lupoli’s superbly weighted cross and his header brought a wonderful, acrobatic save out of Rovers keeper Jan Budtz.
Then early in the second half Almunia proved his worth, first by saving a cracking long-range effort from Sean Thornton, then brilliantly blocking efforts from Heffernan and Lewis Guy.
Wenger’s men were level in the 63rd minute when Quincy 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.
That goal earned the Gunners an extra half-hour in which Rovers continued to match their illustrious opponents for ambition and work-rate and earned the rich praise of Wenger.
He said: “We were playing against a very good side and I am not surprised that they beat Aston Villa after what I saw.
“Doncaster have some players who you think have a future in the Premier League. Their whole team didn’t have a weakness and we found it really tough.”