Arsène Wenger's side have been jettisoned unceremoniously from the FA Cup, the Frenchman suffering the first home defeat to lower league opposition of his 17-year spell in England, to leave their hopes of winning a first trophy in eight years hinging entirely upon Europe. That prospect, just like this defeat, feels utterly unlikely.
This was a rude awakening for Wenger after a recent upturn, the locals' grumbling discontent stoked up into deafening boos at the final whistle to drown the delirium of the travelling Blackburn Rovers support. They could relish in a triumph for a team on the fringes of the Championship promotion race and under the stewardship of a fifth manager of the season, with Michael Appleton surely swollen with pride by the end. Even he, at his most optimistic, could not have seen this coming but Colin Kazim-Richards's goal 18 minutes from time, virtually Rovers' only chance of the afternoon, earned a place in the quarter-finals.
By then Wenger had flung on his cavalry, just as he had at Brighton in the previous round when ignominy beckoned, but there was no reprieve this time around. The excellent Jake Kean saved a Theo Walcott header and Abou Diaby stung the goalkeeper's hands, but Arsenal never did enough to unsettle the visitors' resolute defence. When Mikel Arteta's shot found the side-netting deep into stoppage time, their time was up and this season of FA Cup surprises had another shock.
What made it feel all the more remarkable was that the corresponding fixture had been a slaughter a little over a year ago, with Steve Kean's Blackburn hammered 7-1 as they tumbled out of the top tier. Appleton's Rovers have proved more resilient over his short tenure to date and they made this awkward for long periods, massing behind the ball in the acceptance that Arsenal would monopolise possession, but defending ruggedly. Too often home players made progress on the flanks but crossed in hope towards a lonely Olivier Giroud, the Frenchman lost in the clutter of visiting defenders. Scott Dann and Grant Hanley barked instructions while Kean conjured fine saves to deny headers from Diaby and Thomas Vermaelen.
Wenger, looking for any kind of consolation, must have been grateful to have the latter back for the first time since the draw with Liverpool last month, with Bayern in mind, though it was another of the recent absentees who really should have earned the home side a first-half lead. Gervinho, back from the African Cup of Nations in South Africa, benefited from Tomas Rosicky's first-time through ball behind Hanley but, as Kean advanced, dragged his shot wide of the far post as the goalkeeper fell the other way.
That felt horribly wasteful but stood out all the more because it was so clear-cut an opportunity. So many other sights of goal had been snatched, the home players increasingly reduced to optimistic attempts from distance even if Rosicky did crash one effort on to the crossbar from 20 yards. Rovers soaked it up in the hope that Jordan Rhodes, such a prolific force at the lower level, might seize an opportunity of his own on one of their rare forays upfield, with his supply-line tweaked upon the introduction of the former Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and England winger David Bentley just after the hour-mark. The 28-year-old had only rejoined on loan from Spurs the day before, with his exchanges with sections of the home support on the touchline as he warmed up having previously provided one of the entertaining aspects to the afternoon.
Eventually even Wenger's patience snapped, with Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla summoned 19 minutes from time to avert the prospect of a replay. They had the desired effect, though not in the anticipated way. Arsenal were still readjusting when Martin Olsson sprung down the left on to Rhodes's flick with Wojciech Szczesny pushing the shot away. That was arguably his first save of the game yet Kazim-Richards, so peripheral up to then, struck the follow-up down into the turf and it looped up over the wrong-footed goalkeeper and drifted in off the post. There was disbelief to be had in that, and huge celebrations among the visiting players on the final whistle. Bayern will not be quaking in their boots on this evidence.
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