Arsenal crashed out of the Capital One Cup on penalties as Thomas Vermaelen went from hero to villain in the space of an hour at Valley Parade. The Belgian rescued the Gunners from defeat in normal time with an 87th minute header to cancel out Gary Thompson’s opener, but could only hit the post when he needed to score in the shooutout which followed a stale period of extra-time. Santi Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh both also missed as the Gunners succumbed to lower league opposition for only the third time in Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club.
As promised Arsene fielded a strong starting line-up with eight of the side that beat West Bromwich Albion retaining their place. Francis Coquelin, Lukas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey were the only changes replacing Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud respectively.
The home fans, who pre-game had kindly handed out free Santa hats to all the travelling Gooners, were in vociferous voice at kick-off and despite a couple of early headers from Thomas Vermaelen and Lukas Podolski grew in confidence and noise as they watched their dogged side take the lead after 15 minutes.
Vermaelen was penalised for a body check on Bradford’s tricky winger Wells and from the resulting free-kick Gary Thompson found space at the back post to volley first time past Szczesny. The defending wasn’t great, the finish was clinical.
For all the tidy possession Arsenal maintained in midfield we rarely threatened and were it not for a Gibbs block on the line from another set piece we could have been staring down the barrel of a two-goal deficit. After a prolonged scrappy spell we started to show a bit of promise before half-time.
First Francis Coquelin showed quick feet to wriggle past three Bradford players before unleashing a tidy drive which smacked off the post then Cazorla drove wide from 20-yards. Gervinho then conceived to miss from two yards after failing to connect properly with a Gibbs cross following fine interplay from the midfield.
Those squandered chances could have been compounded had Wells’ shot crept inside Szczesny’s post just before the break. The 22-year-old Bermudian, who once played for a club called the Dandy Town Hornets, had Vermaelen in a real muddle all half and looked far more like a Premier League star than our Belgian.
The shakiness continued in the opening moments of the second half with our captain continuing to make mindless challenges in dangerous areas. Eventually Arsenal found their footing again. Ramsey flashed wide, Gervinho fluffed his lines a couple of times, nobody connected with a dangerous Coquelin cross before Wenger took action on 60 minutes by swapping the young Frenchman for Marouane Chamakh.
Eight minutes later Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Ramsey and Podolski and the England man immediately forced a decent stop from the Bradford keeper. It was our first on target in the match.
If we were turning the screw, we seemed to be using a Swiss Army knife to do so. It was painful stuff to watch and Bradford seemed to enjoy their opportunities to hit us on the break.
Wilshere took some responsibility and had a decent effort on goal but when you wanted a striker chasing in on the rebound Chamakh had his head in his hands on the edge of the area. With six minutes left on the clock Chamberlain skied an effort over after nice play by Gervinho, however, just when it looked as though our luck might be out Vermaelen finally met a Cazorla cross to head the equaliser with three minutes left on the clock. A captain’s goal after he’d been up against it all night.
Rosicky nearly won the game a minute later before two long-range efforts from Cazorla stung the palms of Matt Duke in the dying seconds before referee Mike Dean signalled 30 minutes of extra-time for the second round in succession.
Our English internationals, Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs (twice), all caused panic in the Bradford box as we pressed for a winner against a side who began to eye the possibility of a penalty shootout.
We continued to press in the second period of extra-time. First Chamakh flashed a header just wide from a Cazorla corner, then the little Spaniard thwacked the bar with a superb dipping effort. On far too many occasions the final ball into the box was either under or over hit as Arsene Wenger grew increasingly apoplectic with his players. The boss stated before the game that he wanted to avoid a shootout against a side who have won eight in the last three years, he didn’t get his wish.
Doyle scored for Bradford. Cazorla missed. Jones scored. Chamakh missed. Szczesny saved from Derby. Wilshere scored. Connell scored. Chamberlain scored. (Another) Jones had his effort saved. And just when you thought we’d been handed a lifeline Vermaelen hit the post.
And we went out.
Out against a side in the fourth tier of English football. Out of a competition we stood a fine chance of winning. Out to the sound of the rest of the Premier League crowing at our expense.
A horrible night for Arsenal. A great one for Bradford.