LONDON (AP) — Arsenal avoided FA Cup embarrassment against second-tier club Wigan on Saturday, coming from behind against the holder and winning a penalty shootout to reach the final where the London club will be looking to end a nine-year trophy drought.
After extra time ended 1-1, Arsenal's players scored all of their penalties and Lukasz Fabianski made two vital saves in a 4-2 shootout victory over Wigan in this meeting of the fifth-place teams in the Premier League and League Championship.
Wigan went in front in regular time from the penalty spot at Wembley Stadium. Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker conceded the spot kick that Jordi Gomez converted but the German made amends by heading in the equalizer that sent the game into extra time.
"In the first half we were a bit timid," Mertesacker said. "A lot of people questioned (our character) recently but how we came back today we proved a lot."
A year after winning its first major trophy by beating Manchester City and then again in this year's semifinals, Wigan couldn't produce another upset against a Premier League power — much to Arsene Wenger's relief.
"It was important mentally," the Arsenal manger said. "If you imagine the consequences of going out tonight, it would have been quite worrying."
With the second half of his 18-year reign defined by the lack of silverware, Wenger desperately needs to collect a first trophy since the 2005 FA Cup success when Arsenal returns to Wembley for the final. Arsenal will discover on Sunday whether it will face Premier League side Hull or third-tier club Sheffield United on May 17.
It could be a bittersweet end to the season, though, with Arsenal at risk of missing out on the Champions League after 16 successive years. Just before kickoff at Wembley, Arsenal was dislodged from the fourth Champions League place by Everton, which beat Sunderland 1-0.
What a slump it has been for Wenger's side, having spent so much of the opening months of the season on top of the league. The failure to strengthen the squad in the January transfer window has come back to bite Wenger.
How differently things could have turned out if he had brought in an additional striker. Instead, Wenger on Saturday was relying for goals on 21-year-old striker Yaya Sanogo, who was starting just his fourth game since joining on a free transfer before this season. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.
Sanogo's lack of cutting edge and pace in front of goal quickly became apparent. The Frenchman was denied by Scott Carson from close range after five minutes and again just before halftime when his unconvincing first touch to control the ball allowed the goalkeeper to thwart the attempt.
If there was anything to reassure a dreary Arsenal side failing to produce the fluid football Wenger champions, it was Wigan's inability to provide much attacking menace. So Arsenal gifted Wigan the opening to go in front.
Mertesacker slid in with a lunge to cut out Callum McManaman's run and the forward went to ground in the penalty area. After a delay while Arsenal defender Nacho Monreal received treatment elsewhere on the pitch, Gomez, a product of Barcelona's youth system, sent the spot kick beyond the reach of Lukasz Fabianski.
The anger among Arsenal fans who have grown accustomed to failure was clear: Jeers greeted Wenger's decision to bring Giroud on, not for Sanogo but Lukas Podolski in the 68th.
The equalizer proved elusive. After Carson's save from Kieran Gibbs' header sent the ball drifting toward the goal, Wigan defender Stephen Crainey scooped the ball off the line.
Wigan's goal was finally breached in the 82nd when it couldn't fully clear a corner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain raised the ball over the defense and Mertesacker headed in at the far post.
It was a lucky escape for Arsenal, which was denied a winner in extra time when Oxlade-Chamberlain hit the crossbar but had better luck in the shootout. Fabianski saved Wigan's first two penalties by Gary Caldwell and Jack Collison, while Arteta, Kim Kallstrom, Giroud and Cazorla all netted for the Gunners.
"We are walking out of Wembley on paper as losers but in our own mind as winners," said Wigan manager Uwe Rosler, whose focus returns to gaining promotion back to the Premier League.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris