A penalty shootout against a lower league side with possible question marks about the direction of the club is a scenario Arsenal fans are familiar with. Sixteen months on from Arsenal's defeat at Bradford City's Valley Parade, they almost experienced another dosage of that humbling medicine but eventually vanquished a valiant Wigan Athletic side 4-2 on penalties in a tense FA Cup semi final.
For 20 minutes, another Latics final appearance seemed within reach. Arsenal were on the brink of perhaps their most ignominious defeat under Arsène Wenger but instead they rallied and secured their first major final in three years. For the first time in what must feel like aeons, their hopes of ending a nine-year trophy drought will still be alive in May.
Questions will be raised, though. Ten years ago, Arsenal were the invincibles but now they are utterly unconvincing even when they reach an FA Cup final. They were bereft of influential first-teamers such as Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs but their effort for 75 minutes versus Wigan was risible and those in red did little to quell suspicion of Arsène Wenger departing north London this summer.
Arsenal players celebrate their FA Cup semi-final win
The ramifications of defeat to Wigan would have been apocalyptic. Hours earlier, Everton usurped Arsenal in the Barclays Premier League table to occupy the final Champions League spot outright. You could not help but wonder whether Wenger valued Tuesday's home League match with West Ham more than an FA Cup semi-final against a Championship side that lost to Millwall midweek. However, he could not afford to underestimate a side that have twice famously humbled Manchester City in this competition within the last two years and even Yaya Sanogo's selection at the fatigued Olivier Giroud's expense was hardly unexpected.
It was, also, effectively a home fixture. Not due to Wembley's proximity to north London, but by how overwhelmingly Arsenal's support outnumbered their counterparts. A reserves set of followers, Arsenal's contingent drowned out any offerings from the travellers from the River Douglas.
Often, it resembled the Emirates. There was a sense of frustration and impatience as early as the 22nd minute as Lukas Podolski and Nacho Monreal hesitated and contrived to pass the ball out of play. That particular partnership is a sore reminder for Arsenal's support of how the club have countenanced mediocrity. It used to be Winterburn and Overmars or Cole and Pires under Wenger.
Seldom has a player recovered from withering jeers to prompt cheers of relief like Aaron Ramsey. Far from the first of Arsenal's barren era to be anointed the status of unofficial scapegoat by supporters, Ramsey's form in the first half of the season coincided with one of the most convincing periods of Arsenal under Arsène Wenger for six years. His significance is measured by how his teammates have limped on since he limped off at Upton Park on Boxing Day. Already Wales captain, he could receive the armband at club level soon, too.
In a team littered with unconvincing individuals, Ramsey's inclusion in the starting XI was greeted with euphoric relief. Even Arsenal's established first-team members, such as Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla, will have welcomed his presence. It is telling that a club annually accused of going backwards is reliant on a player whose outstanding contribution lasted for four months.
Sanogo, denied inside five minutes by a point-blank stop by Scott Carson, looked awkward and clumsy. His story about almost giving up football to become a postman is the kind usually reserved for FA Cup minnows, rather than a team attempting to equal Manchester United's record haul of ten triumphs. Gooners would rightly argue he is a preferable alternative to the absent and awful Nicklas Bendtner.
Callum McManaman injected some energy into a flat opening half-an-hour with his jinky pace which petrified Manchester City's defenders on the same turf 11 months ago and now terrified Monreal and, in particular, Thomas Vermaelen. McManaman's dynamism intensified the anxiety in the Arsenal end. Too often, Arteta shirked responsibility while Santi Cazorla's effort was again languorous. Yesteryear, the infamous Wembley pitch would have been blamed, but for a side who had no European obligations this week Arsenal looked jet-lagged. Carson, back at the scene of his lowest ebb with England six-and-a-half years ago, enlivened proceedings with some hesitantly calamitous goalkeeping Sanogo should have punished him for.
Uwe Rösler fielded four of the heroic XI that upset City last year and there were obvious parallels. Marc-Antoine Fortuné occupied the Arouna Koné role, McManaman was the adventurous outlet on the wing, while James McArthur and Emmerson Boyce complemented an organised defensive spine. They lacked a player of James McCarthy's tenacity, though, and the delicate Josh McEachran struggled even against Arsenal's lightweights.
Gómez celebrates his opener from the penalty spot
Wenger laments Arsenal's nerves on a near-weekly basis and they were evident again. McManaman brushed off Monreal, dismissed Vermaelen, burst into the penalty area and was scythed down by Mertesacker. Penalty. Monreal received treatment, Wenger brought on Kieran Gibbs and even McManaman gulped from a water bottle. The wait was excruciating. All three minutes and 44 seconds. It did not fluster Jordi Gómez. The Spaniard struck the ball past Łukasz Fabiański's right hand in the 63rd minute.
And then the latest mutinous outbreak from Gooners was heard. The profligate Podolski was hauled off to boos, as Wigan fans teased Wenger he was "getting sacked in the morning". He looked utterly forlorn after Gómez's strike. Hands in his pockets, solemn and still, the end seemed nigh for one of European football's most stubborn coaches. On one occasion, Wenger crouched down in exasperation and, for a moment, it seemed he was on the brink of impersonating Basil Fawltey's meltdown. The wreath behind Wenger was symbolic.
Arsenal's approach was baffling. For a team in an FA Cup semi-final and with Champions League qualification at stake, they mirrored a team metaphorically on the beach that was contesting an exhibition match. The fear of failure was pungent. Yet they recovered.
Arsenal players and fans celebrate Mertesacker's equaliser
The onslaught was absorbing. Bacary Sagna struck Carson's woodwork, Gibbs had an effort cleared off the line by Stephen Crainey before Mertesacker atoned for his foul on McManaman when he nodded in his second Wembley goal of the season from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's snap-shot with eight minutes to spare.
Just like the Wembley semi-final 20 years ago, extra-time was required. Arsenal's fickle following was fanatical again and Sanogo, inexplicably still on the pitch, had fluffed four chances in a seven-minute spell. Quite what he possesses to merit the status of Arsenal footballer only Wenger knows, but his cult extends solely to his potency on the Football Manager 2012 edition.
Wigan were tiring. Rosler made all three of his substitutions in normal time and their woodwork was rattled again from an Oxlade Chamberlain piledriver. Wenger had one option remaining from the bench, only the most effective of the available quintet was the underwhelming Kim Källström, who arrived in the 113th minute.
Källström was one of the four nerveless Gunners who fired past Carson in the shootout. Gary Caldwell and Jack Collinson's pathetic penalties put Wigan at a disadvantage and it was left to Santi Cazorla, after Arteta and Giroud's conversions, to ensure a return to Wembley, despite Jean Beausejour and McArthur's best efforts.