Ipswich Town came back from the dead to give the performance of their lives as Tamas Priskin handed the Blues a precious 1-0 lead over Arsenal in the Carling Cup Semi-Final First Leg at Portman Road.
Before the match, new Ipswich manager Paul Jewell was given a warm welcome by the first sell-out crowd at Portman Road in 7 years. However, with the 46-year-old not due to take charge until Thursday morning, the responsibility for team selection and tactics again fell to caretaker manager Ian ‘Charlie’ McParland.
Having overseen the embarrassing 7-0 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea in his first game, McParland switched to a 4-3-3 formation to face Arsenal, Mark Kennedy coming into an unfamiliar role at centre-midfield with David Norris on the right and Colin Healy on the left. With Jason Scotland picking up a knock at Stamford Bridge, Tamas Priskin returned to a front three alongside Connor Wickham and Carlos Edwards, whilst Damien Delaney replaced the injured Troy Brown in defence.
Arsenal meanwhile named the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott among their lineup whilst also giving Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny a rare appearance in goal.
Desperate to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s humiliation, Town showed some early signs of nerves as the game kicked off. Marton Fulop was first called into action to collect a cross by Jack Wilshere in the first minute, then Delaney had to clear from Fabregas after a mistake by Gareth McAuley. The Spanish international narrowly missed a low ball from Arshavin as the visitors looked set to dominate as Chelsea had done.
Laurent Koscielny inadvertently diverted Edwards’ cross behind as Town earned the first corner of the match, but Arsenal continued to have much more of the possession for the opening ten minutes, Delaney sliding in to block a long-range effort by Denilson. Town responded by moving into more of a 4-5-1 shape, but lone striker Priskin was unable to keep possession with seemingly too much expected of him from a series of long balls forward.
It was not until the 13th minute that Ipswich managed their first bit of pressure on the Arsenal goal, Kieran Gibbs blocking a shot by Edwards. Priskin then cut in from the left and flashed a dangerous-looking effort across goal from 18 yards as the Blues appeared to be gaining confidence. At the other end, Arshavin teed up Walcott coming in from the right, but the England winger could only hammer right across goal for a throw-in.
With 20 minutes played, the Blues were beginning to settle into the game, coping with any Arsenal pressure whilst creating more chances of their own. In particular, Wickham was playing a surprisingly active role in defence, getting back to combat the threat of Walcott especially. On the attack, Kennedy smashed a 30-yard volley wildly over the bar for the Blues before Szczesny came out of his area to clear a long ball away from Norris. McAuley then did well to head clear of Nicklas Bendtner at the expense of a corner.
As the half-hour mark ticked by, Town seemed to be getting closer to breaking the deadlock despite Arsenal having by far the majority of the possession. Wickham had a shot blocked for a corner, then McAuley headed over from the resulting set-piece despite Szczesny coming off his line. There was a mild scare on 32 minutes when Edwards sliced awkwardly towards his own goal, but Fulop was able to claim. The Town keeper then saved a weak shot from the D by Walcott before Fabregas hit a free-kick straight into the Town wall after Kennedy was harshly adjudged by referee Martin Atkinson to have fouled Emmanuel Eboue.
Having successfully lasted longer without conceding than they had managed at Stamford Bridge, the Blues began to grow more and more in confidence. Wickham’s cross from the left sailed just over Norris at the far post before Town did have the ball in the net, Priskin smashing in an incredible overhead kick only for it to be ruled out after the Hungarian had strayed offside. Wickham then struck over from 25 yards when he might have been better to set up Edwards before Darren O’Dea earned himself a rather cheap booking for pulling back Walcott as Atkinson blew for half-time.
Charlie would have been delighted with his team’s first half performance after Sunday. Ipswich had probably done enough to deserve a lead in the first half without having much of the ball, but they had done well to deal with the early Arsenal threat and now looked as though they might just cause an upset. With just a quarter of the two-legged tie gone however, there was still an awful lot of time to go.
Much like they had done in the first half, Arsenal came out in the second period looking more dangerous, Arshavin hammering over on the half-volley before he was wrongly called for offside when running clear through on goal. It did not take Town long to start pressing forward again however, Wickham having another effort blocked by Eboue after a good spell of pressure. Kennedy then almost opened the scoring in spectacular fashion on 54 minutes when he spotted Szczesny off his line, the 34-year-old striking from the centre circle only for the Arsenal keeper to get back and make the save.
Just before the hour mark, Priskin had the first of several good opportunities to give Town the lead. With most of the Arsenal side still forward for a corner, Eboue completely miscontrolled a dropping ball inside the centre circle to allow Priskin to steal possession. Unable to get away from the Ivorian defender however, Priskin elected to shoot despite support coming in from Wickham and Edwards, the shot bouncing off Eboue safely into the hands of Szczesny.
Three minutes later, Priskin had an even better chance. A long clearance by Jaime Peters was missed by Koscielny, giving Priskin another opportunity to charge towards goal. With Szczesny off his line, the whole of Portman Road was begging for Priskin to lob the keeper, but instead he waited too long for it to bounce favourably for him, giving Johan Djourou time to race in and clear. It was the best opportunity of the match so far, and with that, some of the home fans must have feared that Ipswich had missed their big chance to seize control of the tie.
Undeterred, Ipswich kept on attacking. Wickham struck a dropping ball wide of the left post before Priskin was again in the thick of the action. With Arsenal playing quite a high line, somehow Eboue and Djourou were having an inordinate amount of trouble dealing with the long ball. Djourou strangely elected to let the next one bounce back to his keeper but it didn’t have anywhere near enough pace on it, giving Priskin time to dash forward and nearly steal the loose ball only for Szczesny to scoop it up just in time.
Arsenal chances were now becoming few and far between, Gibbs cutting in from the left and firing wide of the near post before Wenger decided to make changes. Alexandre Song came on for Wilshere whilst Bendtner, who had been virtually anonymous, was replaced by Marouane Chamakh. Two minutes later Walcott managed to turn his defender but could only hit another weak effort straight at Fulop.
There was then a moment of controversy when Szczesny came over to collect a loose ball right on the edge of his 18 yard area. The ball still appeared to be outside the box when he gathered it in his hand, prompting howls from the supporters in the North Stand, but neither Atkinson nor the linesman seemed to have noticed it. At the other end, Szczesny’s opposite number Fulop was becoming increasingly busy, Walcott breaking through one-on-one with him only for the Hungarian keeper to make a good block at his near post. There was then a brief holdup after Norris picked up a knock during the resulting set-play, but thankfully he was able to continue.
With 76 minutes gone, the Gunners then had arguably their best chance of the entire match. Gibbs sent a ball in from the left which fell towards Fabregas running into the 6 yard area. The Arsenal captain failed to react however and somehow ended up letting it bounce over off his thigh with the goal gaping in front of him.
How crucial that miss proved to be. Two minutes later, yet another ball over the top – this time from Healy – sent Tamas Priskin powering towards the Arsenal box. No doubt the memory of his earlier wasted opportunity was on his mind as he closed in on goal, but this time he made no mistake. Despite pressure from Djourou coming back, the former Watford striker struck a lovely curling shot from the edge of the 18 yard area around the diving Szczesny and inside the far post, sending the whole of Portman Road into rapturous celebration. There could be no doubt that it was a goal that Ipswich, and indeed Priskin himself, had fully deserved for their evening’s work, and now the Blues had a precious 1-0 lead that could prove so vital ahead of the return leg at the Emirates.
It was now all hands on deck as the inevitable late Arsenal fightback started to manifest itself. Delaney blocked a shot from 25 yards by Walcott before Wenger sent on Carlos Vela in place of the very underwhelming Arshavin. Five minutes later the Gunners nearly caught out Fulop with the Town keeper spilling a shot from Chamakh, but he was just able to pounce on it before Vela could nip in. Walcott then made a run in from the left and tried to dink a delicate shot over Fulop, but again the keeper was able to push it away at the near post.
Bizarrely, Town then might have made it 2-0 – and once again, it was the long ball. With the Gunners defence still holding a very high line, a huge thump across field found Edwards on the right wing and put him one-on-one with Szczesny. Sadly, a heavy touch let him down, narrowing the angle as he came inside and preventing him doing anything other than thumping the ball straight into the keeper for a corner.
McParland, who by now was beaming on the Town bench, made his only change of the match as four minutes of injury time began, Priskin getting a huge round of applause from the crowd as he was replaced by Ronan Murray. With Arsenal still unable to find a way through thanks to further good work from Peters, Delaney and even Wickham at the back, Atkinson sounded the final whistle to hand Ipswich a famous victory and give them a crucial advantage in the semi-final tie.
For everything they did wrong at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Ipswich did everything right against Arsenal tonight. It was by no means an inspiring performance from the Gunners, whose usual free-flowing passing game was replaced by rather predictable sideways movement, while the likes of Bendtner and Arshavin – both of them well below-par – were failing to run onto dangerous through-balls behind the Town backline. Wenger will probably be more alarmed however by just how much trouble his weakened defence were experiencing in dealing with Town’s hoofed balls forward, Djourou and Eboue having a particularly bad game. On that evidence, rumours of a hunt for defensive reinforcements at Arsenal come as no surprise.
Despite the Gunners’ failings however, credit should not be taken away from the Blues who, even being well below full strength, put up a valiant and determined performance that contrasted so enormously from their timid surrender at Stamford Bridge that nobody would have believed they were the same team. Wickham, whilst not scoring, put in a fantastic display for both attacking and defensive causes, earning praise from both Town and Arsenal fans alike. Priskin, despite wasting chances, proved to be a real nuisance to the Arsenal backline as he threatened time and time again running onto the long ball, whilst credit also has to go to the likes of Edwards, Delaney, Norris and Peters for their efforts. Truly, the whole team deserves recognition for what was a major upset, denied total victory only by the presence of the second leg to follow. Jewell will have taken over the reins by then, but McParland – who could not have had two tougher games for which he was forced to man the wheel – must be congratulated for his efforts and will surely be fondly remembered wherever he goes.
Of course, for all the joy of causing such a shock, Town will know that the job is only half done, and surely that second half will be far tougher. They will have to put on the same show of grit and determination for a further 90 minutes at the Emirates in two weeks time if tonight’s achievement is to count for anything in the context of this competition, though the positive ramifications for the Blues’ Championship campaign could be overwhelming. Whatever happens however, the club and the fans will always have the memory of the night they came back from the dead at Chelsea to shoot the Gunners down.
On a final note, plenty have drawn eerie parallels between Ipswich’s current cup run and that of their historic FA Cup title in 1978. During that run, Sir Bobby Robson’s Blues beat Millwall and West Bromwich Albion before Roger Osborne’s famous 77th minute strike earned them their final triumph over Arsenal. With Ipswich having beaten Millwall and West Brom again to get this far, Tamas Priskin scored in the 78th minute to claim this win over Arsenal. Make of that what you will…
Ipswich: Fulop, Peters, McAuley, Delaney, O’Dea, Edwards, Norris, Healy, Kennedy, Wickham, Priskin (Murray 90) – Not used: Lee-Barrett, Smith, Eastman, Civelli, Lambe, Hourihane
Arsenal: Szczesny, Koscielny, Djourou, Eboue, Gibbs, Fabregas, Walcott, Denilson, Wilshere (A Song 68), Arshavin (Vela 80), Bendtner (Chamakh 68) – Not used: Shea, Eastmond, Miquel, Ramsey
Did you go to Portman Road on Wednesday? What did you make of the performance of the two teams? How do you think this confidence boost could impact upon our league campaign, and could we really go all the way to Wembley? Have your say on this historic victory as well as all things Town by joining Vital Ipswich: