FT: Arsenal 2 Cardiff 1
Robert Pires underlined his case for a new contract to stay at Highbury along with compatriot Thierry Henry as he scored twice to guide holders Arsenal into the FA Cup fourth round.
There may have been little cup romance as the Gunners knocked out Championship side Cardiff, but Henry’s declaration of love for the home side had buoyed the crowd in any case.
The Arsenal captain, who eased fears over his future by revealing his desire to sign a new contract, nevertheless watched from the executive boxes as he was rested for this encounter.
Instead, it was left to Pires, whose future is still uncertain, to strike twice in the first 18 minutes to seal victory.
The Frenchman, whose contract expires this summer, is looking for a new two-year deal, while Arsenal normally only offer 12 months to any player over 30.
But while his form has been somewhat patchy so far this season, his finishing was accomplished and it was just as well as Arsenal were given a nervous final four minutes by Cameron Jerome’s late strike.
Arsenal rested not only Henry, but also Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell and Cesc Fabregas, with their inexperienced defence featuring youngsters Kerrea Gilbert and Johan Djourou, as well as the nervous Philippe Senderos.
Cardiff first threatened after less than a minute, with Neal Ardley clipping an excellent through ball over the head of Senderos.
The Swiss international took time to turn, and that enabled Jerome to nip in ahead of keeper Manuel Almunia only to lob his shot just over the bar.
Arsenal nevertheless steadied themselves and regrouped. Although their defence looked suspect, they were a completely different prospect going forward, with experience and class in equal measure.
With just six minutes gone, they were ahead. Dennis Bergkamp picked out Jose Reyes and the Spaniard weighed up his options before clipping a superb pass into the path of Pires, who had beaten the offside trap.
The winger controlled the ball with his first touch before picking his spot and burying his shot inside the far post.
Senderos was still looking especially shaky and was fortunate not to be penalised when he accidentally tripped Jerome as they got to their feet together after a challenge.
The Swiss international earned a booking soon afterwards for a clumsy late challenge on Joe Ledley, but Arsenal were in a class of their own going forward and went further ahead on 18 minutes.
This time van Persie was the architect of Cardiff’s downfall, delivering an incisive pass to Bergkamp, who in turn picked out the run of Pires and the Frenchman’s finishing was again exemplary.
Gilberto was just inches wide with a crisp drive soon afterwards, while Senderos headed Bergkamp’s free-kick narrowly past the post as Arsenal continued to threaten.
The script was much the same in the second half. Arsenal, with Quincy Owusu-Abeyie on for Reyes, were dangerous going forward, with van Persie flicking a header against the bar from a corner.
At the back, meanwhile, they were still suspect and when Jerome powered forward onto a long ball, he picked out Kevin Cooper in space inside the penalty area only for his shot to be blocked.
Senderos was extremely fortunate not to be sent off for a foul on Kevin Cooper that, in many observers’ eyes, should have been his second booking of the game.
Cardiff, meanwhile, refused to give up and Jeff Whitley was denied by a fine save from Manuel Almunia before the visitors finally made a game of it with four minutes left.
Ardley’s corner was headed down by Neil Cox and Jerome stabbed his shot over the line from close range before the Arsenal defence managed to hack the ball away as Darren Purse threatened.
Almunia, who was pushed by a spectator who ran onto the pitch amid the frantic finale, clasped onto the ball amid one scramble in the Arsenal area but the home side held on for victory.