King Henry returns to sink Leeds
Leeds Utd 0
Arsenal rolled back the years last night, relying on Thierry Henry to settle the game by a scoreline etched into the club's history and song-books. Arsenal's bearded wonder has just enhanced his special legacy.
It had to be Henry scoring his 227th goal for Arsenal. The script was written, the stage was set. It just need Henry to arrive from the bench.
He took his goal in trademark fashion, a composed finish one-on-one with the 'keeper, and then celebrated wildly, punching the crest on his chest.
At the final whistle, after his 12th goal in 12 appearances against Leeds, Arsenal's No 12 almost did not want to leave his field of dreams. Leeds centre-half Tom Lees requested his shirt, but Henry was not in the mood for giving away such precious souvenirs. This was one for the private collection.
He looked to the heavens, closed his eyes, and punched the air again before accepting Mikel Arteta's congratulations and running over to the Arsenal bench to thank them. As emotional a story as it was, Henry's intervention was vital as Arsenal had been struggling to break down Simon Grayson's resilient visitors and set up a fourth-round home tie with Aston Villa.
All eyes had been on the Arsenal bench as the players lined up, all focus being on Henry sitting next to Theo Walcott.
Arsenal's concentration swiftly turned to breaking down the serried ranks of Leeds defence, which stood resolute. Danny Pugh protected the back four, sitting deep in midfield and looking to pick up Aaron Ramsey when the Welshman darted through. For 70 minutes, Arsenal laboured, waiting for Henry's emotional return.
Opportunity knocked infrequently through a half of deepening frustration.
Two of the team's underachievers, Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin, then combined, the Russian firing wildly over. Then Arshavin found Chamakh but Leeds cleared well.
Arsenal were struggling for inspiration, missing the cutting edge of the rested Robin van Persie, and over-dwelling in possession. One of their few decent first-half chances arrived via a free-kick, lifted in by Arteta and met by Sebastian Squillaci, whose header dropped wide.
Arshavin suddenly burst into life, echoing his Euro 2008 form for Russia, embarking on a mazy dribble in from the left before running into a cul de sac. Then Arteta and Ramsey linked up but the Spaniard shot wide.
Leeds broke out, Mika Varynen exploiting hesitancy by Alex Song to create a chance for Luciano Becchio, who fired over.
The one incident of any significance arrived when Arsenal's curse of the stricken full-back struck again. Francis Coquelin, who played at left-back against Fulham, was one of the few Arsenal players to emerge with any credit from that game, and he was settling in well on the right here until injury intervened.
Coquelin had pushed on, seeking to open up Leeds' obdurate defence, but his hamstring gave. He sat there on the ground, in front of the Leeds fans, eventually receiving medical attention before limping off.
In Coquelin's place, making only his second senior appearance, came Nico Yennaris, who hails from the same Leytonstone manor as the watching David Beckham.
Yennaris wore No 56, which could easily have been the number of full-backs Arsene Wenger has used this season. So Arsenal's back-line was now Yennaris, Squillaci, Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel.
Arsenal were poor and the sight of the injured Jack Wilshere yawning summed up the first half. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tried to get them going, speeding down the right, but was stopped by Leeds left-back Aidan White. Leeds were using foul means, as well as fair, in thwarting Arsenal. Ireland's Darren O'Dea was booked for catching Chamakh.
The second half had to be better. It could not be worse. The thought of a replay, another game in a crowded calendar, seemed to have focused thoughts. Leeds went for it: Adam Clayton charged through the middle, slipping the ball wide to Ramon Nunez, whose cross was turned away for a corner by Yennaris.
The game opened up. Arshavin shot wide. Oxlade-Chamberlain, increasingly lively, charged down the inside-left channel, cutting the ball back well to Chamakh, who calmly laid the ball off to Arteta. The Spaniard's low shot was well saved by Andy Lonergan.
Arsenal fans were briefly distracted by other issues, cheering wildly as Henry warmed up and then booing as former Spurs player Michael Brown came on. The Emirates then erupted as Henry arrived, hundreds of camera flashes going off. He embraced Chamakh and immediately tried to inspire Arsenal. It was a night for Arsenal alumni getting a touch as Martin Keown, working for ESPN, had been hit by a stray ball beforehand.
The final 15 minutes were frantic. Clayton again sped through. Then Leeds sub Ross McCormack closed down Wojciech Szczesny, who scuffed the ball out. It fell to Nunez, who seized on the loose ball and drilled it back goalwards, but Arsenal's 'keeper had hurried back to save.
Stung by that near miss, Arsenal went for the jugular. Zac Thompson slid in to dispossess Arshavin. But the script was written. Song made Henry's goal, finding the Frenchman with a superb pass. Henry was typically composed, stroking the ball past Lonergan.
As Arsenal fans partied, sharing in Henry's joy, Leeds refused to bow out quietly. The excellent Clayton crossed, catching Arsenal's defence out, but Szczesny was alert to McCormack's header. Leeds kept pushing, and Arteta needed to track back to help out.
Another Premier League old boy then almost ruined Henry's party as Mikael Forssell brought a good save from Szczesny.
The game finished with Henry taking the ball down to the corner-flag, losing possession and kicking White as he accelerated upfield. Henry could easily have been cautioned.
First Paul Scholes, now Henry: the FA Cup has rediscovered its romantic reputation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)