CESC FABREGAS’S slick penalty condemned battling Town to a cruel defeat.
Just four minutes of a hugely absorbing FA Cup fourth-round tie remained when the Spanish World Cup winner finally separated the sides bound together by legendary manager Herbert Chapman.
Current Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was given a distinctly tough afternoon as his side, having taken a first-half lead through Nicklas Bendtner, were reduced to 10 men by the dismissal of defender Sebastien Squillaci, then pegged back by Alan Lee’s first Town goal, headed home from Anthony Pilkington’s corner right in front of the 5,100-plus Town fans in a 59,375 crowd at the Emirates Stadium.
With experienced Kevin Kilbane at left-back, Town boss Lee Clark handed a high-profile full debut to 20-year-old right-back Jack Hunt, back from a loan spell at League II Chesterfield and with only one previous Town appearance as a substitute to his credit.
Lee Peltier was pushed up into midfield alongside Joey Gudjonsson and Tom Clarke with Gary Roberts and Pilkington either side of Lee up front.
Meanwhile the strength at the disposal of Arsene Wenger was shown by his bench, which included Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, young English aces Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere and Czech national captain Tomas Rosicky.
Among his multi-national starting line-up was recalled Spanish keeper Manuel Almunia, French defender Samir Nasri, the Gunners’ skipper for the day, Brazilian midfielder Denilson, Russian attacker Andrey Arshavin and Dane Nicklas Bendtner.
It was a hectic start for Hunt as Arshavin pushed forward down the left, shooting over from Bendtner’s flick-on in the fourth minute, then crossing for Bendtner to fire over from a good position in the 12th.
The busy Russian then shaved the outside of keeper Ian Bennett’s right-hand post after cutting in and shooting low.
Town, for whom Tom Clarke had shot wide early on, were having their moments, however.
Kilbane’s break in the 16th minute set up Lee, who won a corner, taken by Roberts, which was initially cleared, with the ball returned to the danger zone by Pilkington for Jamie McCombe to head wide.
Arsenal responded with a quick break, Nasri lobbing a pass to Bendtner, who blazed wide.
Town’s fans, behind the goal the home side were attacking, were still mocking the striker when he put the Gunners ahead in the 21st minute.
This time he caught Marouane Chamakh’s pass sweetly, though the Moroccan had appeared to handle the ball, and while the angled shot from the right side of the penalty area took a deflection off Peter Clarke as he tried to block, it still ended up where the frontman intended – nestling in the far corner of the net.
Town refused to buckle, however, and fought back to create a string of chances.
Lee couldn’t quite connect with a teasing 24th-minute cross by Pilkington, who then shot across the face of goal and wide after Lee pounced on a slip by Denilson.Related content
Pilkington then brought a good save from Almunia with a well-struck free-kick on the half hour before coming close with a header from Gudjonsson’s 40th-minute cross.
Gudjonsson drove a free-kick just off target before Arsenal, having already lost Nasri to injury, suffered another setback with the 42nd-minute sending off of Squillaci.
Hunt, growing in confidence as the half progressed, seized on a slip by Arshavin and charged forward, leaving Kieran Gibbs in his slipstream, then cutting between Laurent Koscielny and fellow Frenchman Squillaci, who responded with a clear body check which brought a straight red card from referee Mark Clattenburg.
It was a shame Pilkington shot too high from the resultant free-kick, but Arsenal were still looking uneasy, and Tom Clarke had a 20-yard shot blocked in first-half stoppage time.
Taking the opportunity to reorganise at the break, Wenger sacrificed Moroccan frontman Chamakh for Cameroonian centre-back Alex Song, who was soon in the action as Town pushed forward at the start of the second half.
Gudjonsson was at the centre of the action, bringing a smart save from Almunia before chasing Lee’s flick, only for Arshavin to prevent the shot.
Then, from the Icelandic star’s 60th-minute cross, McCombe again came close with a header.
Scott Arfield came on in the 60th minute after Tom Clarke took a knock, but it made no difference to Town’s attacking flow.
Arsenal again had Almunia to thank when he parried Lee’s close-range header after Peltier and Hunt combined neatly, then when the resultant corner was only partially cleared, Gudjonsson’s dipping shot was only inches off target.
Town’s efforts deserved a reward – and it arrived in the 67th minute when Lee met Pilkington’s corner to power home a tie-levelling header.
On came Fabregas, with Abou Diaby coming off, and forwards went Arsenal, with Bendtner heading over before twice being foiled by Peter Clarke, first with a block, then a tackle.
Town looked good for a replay at least, but after Gudjonsson’s clearance was charged down, Fabregas picked out Bendtner, who tumbled under the challenge of McCombe.
Clattenburg pointed to the spot, booking McCombe, and Fabregas produced a confident finish to cruelly end Town’s hopes.
Have your say on the game in our Monday webchat from 12.30pm today. We want to know what your impression of the game was and if you went, just how loud were the Town fans? Give us your views by clicking here.