Valiant Bradford take centre stage
The trials, tribulations and troubles of a truly great manager continue. Arsene Wenger has a side that loses 8-2 once and loses their best players on an annual basis. He has seen his position and policies questioned by the supporters who once pledged undying allegiance. And even when he is reduced to targeting a competition he once disdained, he cannot win.
When Thomas Vermaelen placed his penalty on to the foot of the post, Valley Parade erupted and Wenger was vanquished. This may not be the ultimate embarrassment, but it belongs on the shortlist of low points in his 16-year reign. A side that cost £7,500 eliminated one purchased for more than £70 million.
Even before then, Wenger was taunted by spectators more used to watching Accrington than Arsenal. The gloating choruses of "sacked in the morning" were gestures of disrespect to the frustrated figure on the touchline and another inquest awaits. This was unacceptable.
"When you go out it is never good enough for Arsenal," Wenger said. This certainly wasn't. Perhaps it is just as well that the Frenchman feels fourth place is a trophy. Silverware of any other kind continues to elude Arsenal and a golden chance to scratch the seven-year itch was squandered. Bradford City, the team from the fourth flight, are in the last four. Arsenal, maintaining their own peculiar brand of self-destructive consistency, are out.
Quarter-finalists for the tenth successive season but never winners under Wenger, the perennial nearly men have been humbled by Burnley and Birmingham in the past . An exit to Bradford was humiliating because while Arsenal have long fielded the B team in this competition, this was almost Wenger's strongest available side. He has won and lost on his own terms in previous years. Now he parachuted in the big guns. "We were surprised how strong their team was but it put more pressure on them," said Bradford manager Phil Parkinson.
But if it was heavyweights against bantamweights, the Bantams deservedly prevailed. With plenty of perspiration and moments of inspiration, they upstaged a side 65 rungs higher in the league ladder. The name that stood out on the teamsheet was that of Jack Wilshere - England's future risked on a rock-hard pitch. The sole name on the scoresheet for 72 minutes was that of Garry Thompson, Morecambe and Scunthorpe's past.
Then came Arsenal's set-piece salvation. Vermaelen headed in Santi Cazorla's cross after a corner. Yet it was only a reprieve. The captain saved them once but there was no encore. With Germanic efficiency, Bradford win penalty shootouts.
A ninth consecutive success came as Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones and Alan Connell scored from the spot. Cazorla was denied by Matt Duke and Vermaelen emulated Marouane Chamakh in striking wood.
There was something predictable about the Moroccan's miss. "We played with five strikers for an hour," said Wenger, with an element of exaggeration. "But we could not convert our chances." Indeed they did not muster a shot on target for 69 minutes on a night when the visiting forwards floundered, when it was logical to wonder if some of the millions Wenger accrued for Arsenal should have been spent on strikers, rather than languishing in the bank.
Chamakh, poor as he was, was not the major culprit. There was a performance of hideous haplessness from Gervinho, where an inability to convert an open goal was only one of his failings. His September purple patch feels like a mirage.
And it was a night when a League Two striker performed with the skill and sharpness his Premier League counterparts lacked. Nakhi Wells swapped his native Bermuda for Bradford (holidaymakers are more likely to make the opposite journey) and his name reverberated around Valley Parade in relentless, rousing choruses. He ran Vermaelen ragged.
Where Wells led, others followed eagerly. Bradford charged around to combat the Yorkshire cold, playing like men possessed. Thompson volleyed in after a corner from Jones and City merited victory in 90 minutes, eventually securing it rather later.
"I don't want the talk to be about the penalties," added Parkinson. "I want it to be about the performance. Some of the football was great and the overall performance was outstanding."
So was the spirit they showed. A club chucked out of one knockout competition - the result of their appeal against their expulsion from the FA Cup for fielding an ineligible player is set to be announced - fought valiantly to stay in another.
Their reward is a place in the semi-final draw and, as Chelsea are the only superpower who could join them there, it highlights what an opportunity this was for Arsenal. "I could not fault the effort," Wenger said. But there was much else to fault and his growing band of detractors will blame the manager.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt Duke - It feels unfair on the rest of the Bradford team, who rendered their goalkeeper a spectator for much of the match, to nominate Duke. Yet either side of the 90-minute mark he made vital saves from Wilshere, Cazorla and Kieran Gibbs and gave Bradford momentum in the shootout by saving from the Spaniard.
BRADFORD VERDICT: It was a colossal effort. Parkinson's charges worked incredibly hard but illustrated their ability as well. Wells excelled in attack, wingers Will Atkinson and Thompson put in some dangerous crosses and captain Gary Jones was a talismanic figure in midfielder. Goalkeeper Duke and centre-backs Carl McHugh and Rory McArdle stood tall at the back when they needed to.
ARSENAL VERDICT: While Wenger had named a strong starting 11, Arsenal were only improved when the substitutes emerged. The arrival of Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain roused them from mediocrity. Each enabled Cazorla to exert more of an influence, yet the injured Olivier Giroud was sorely missed. Chamakh and Gervinho showed why he is needed in attack.