Arsenal remain in the hunt for silverware to brighten their underwhelming season after Dani Ceballos’ 91st-minute winner took them through to the FA Cup semi-finals at Sheffield United’s expense.
The on-loan midfielder slotted home a low, angled drive to win the tie in dramatic fashion, after David McGoldrick’s hooked finish just a few minutes earlier looked to have ensured extra time at Bramall Lane.
The Gunners had led from midway through the first half when Nicolas Pepe had slotted home a penalty after Alexandre Lacazette had been fouled in the box by Chris Basham.
They had earlier had a reprieve when John Lundstram’s close-range header following a corner was ruled out because the scorer was offside.
The home side also had another effort chalked off in the second half when John Egan poked the ball in after McGoldrick had strayed beyond the last defender.
There was further bad news for Lundstram and Sheffield United with the midfielder having to be substituted before the break because of a shoulder injury.
Arsenal also failed to make it through the game unscathed, with centre-back David Luiz – who had only just returned from suspension – limping out to increase their already lengthy injury list.
The win adds another fixture to Arsenal’s already crammed post-restart schedule but they will welcome it as they continue their pursuit of a European place.
As for the Blades, there were positives to take from their front-foot display but they remain without a win in four games since football resumed – a run of form they must quickly arrest to ensure their otherwise impressive first campaign back in the top flight does not peter out.
Arsenal look to FA Cup for solace again
The FA Cup has provided a shining light for Arsenal during a period that has seen them fail to replicate the consistent title challenges of Arsene Wenger’s first 10 seasons in charge.
They have won it three times in the six seasons prior to this, the latest coming in 2017.
In a campaign that has seen Mikel Arteta only just begin to pick up the pieces of Unai Emery’s faltered regime, the world’s oldest cup competition is again their last shot at glory.
It also offers the Gunners’ most likely route back into Europe, after just one win from their three league games since the restart left them ninth in the Premier League and struggling to cling to the coattails of some of the in-form sides above them.
As in their previous three games in the past 12 days, this was far from a seamless, free-flowing display, but it did illustrate that they have grit when required and enough guile for the Spaniard to harness going forward.
With top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rested, senior responsibility in attack fell to Lacazette and record-signing Pepe and while the two only provided in flashes, they did combine for the opener.
For much of the second half, though, they were on the back foot, having to dig in to repel a relentless home side.
There is still work to do, as demonstrated once again by their inability to see a job out, regardless of all the good work that precedes it. As at Brighton in the league last weekend, they were punished for a lapse in concentration late in the game.
However, unlike at the Amex Stadium and possibly as a sign of progress, they rallied as opposed to imploded and found the resolve to create one last moment to win the game.
After Pepe was tackled by Enda Stevens in the box, Ceballos picked up the loose ball and calmly put his low shot under Dean Henderson to send his side to Wembley.
Positives in defeat for Blades
Despite being far apart geographically and for much of their recent competitive history, the FA Cup had forged an unlikely rivalry between these two sides.
The pair have now faced each other 13 times in the competition’s history – games that have contained brilliance and controversy, from David Seaman’s incredible save in the 2003 semi-final to the infamous tie in 1999 that was voided and replayed after the Gunners scored while a Blades player was injured.
While there was little controversy on Sunday, the game did provide a fittingly dramatic conclusion, one that was harsh on a home side who played a more direct game than normal but had Arsenal on the back foot for pretty much all of the second half.
They almost found parity through a goal-kick from Henderson that caught the wind and bounced just over Emiliano Martinez’s bar.
Poor finishing let them down, most notably from Basham, who headed wide at the back post after being found by a cross from the left.
McGoldrick gave them hope of at least an extra 30 minutes to press home the momentum that had swung their way when he poked home following a long throw.
But such is the Blades’ way, they pushed to try and finish it before the six minutes of added time were up and were caught by a decisive sucker-punch.
Chris Wilder’s side now return to league matters as they aim for a top-half finish to reward their rapid progress.
Man of the match – Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal)
Semi-final landmark for Gunners – stats
- Arsenal have progressed to the FA Cup semi-finals for the 30th time, which is a joint-record alongside Manchester United
- Sheffield United have lost three matches in a row in all competitions for only the second time since Chris Wilder’s appointment in 2016, also doing so in December 2017
- Arsenal have now won seven of their past 10 matches in all competitions (L3), as many as they managed across the previous 27 matches (W7 D14 L6)
- Nicolas Pepe’s opener was his 16th goal involvement for Arsenal this season in all competitions (eight goals, eight assists), with only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (21) having a hand in more for the Gunners in 2019-20
- Both of David McGoldrick’s two goals for Sheffield United in all competitions this season have been scored in the FA Cup (from four shots); he is yet to score in 23 Premier League appearances, having attempted 37 shots in that competition this season
- Dani Ceballos’ winner (90:37) – the Gunners’ only shot on target in the second half – was Arsenal’s latest FA Cup goal since Alexis Sanchez (100:06) scored a 101st-minute winner against Manchester City in the semi-finals in April 2017
Arsenal finally play a home game, after four successive fixtures away, with Norwich the visitors to Emirates Stadium on Wednesday for a 18:00 BST kick-off.
Sheffield United will look to get their first win since the restart when they host Tottenham at Bramall Lane on Thursday, also at 18:00.