Arsenal's are seldom more vulnerable than when they venture to the kingdom's farthest outposts and so it proved at a febrile Ninian Park, where the vociferous noise was scarcely in tune with their subdued performance. Certainly, their supporters began the afternoon fully mindful of the menace that awaited, as around 200 police officers corralled 3,000 of them on the walk from the railway station to the stadium for fear of skirmishes with home fans. After this result, their departure proved an altogether quieter affair.
For Cardiff, the run to Wembley last season has not so much been consigned to memory as whetted their appetite for more. Dave Jones, the Cardiff manager, marshalled his men superbly, centre-backs Roger Johnson and Kyle McNaughton frightening the life out of Arsenal while goalkeeper Peter Enckelman stood tall. "We gave it a go, as we always said we would," Jones said. "I have never put out a side who believed they could not get something out of the game." It was indicative of their ambition that instead of forming a roadblock with a five-man midfield, Cardiff poured forward at every opportunity, their play of an intensity that even Arsene Wenger had to admire.
"They played with total commitment," Wenger said. "They showed us what the Cup is all about." Although the Frenchman had to contemplate the inconvenience of a replay at the Emirates Stadium in an already concertina-ed schedule, he sounded sanguine when asked if he felt Arsenal's progress in the competition had been derailed. "Let's not complain. The job is still to do - we could do without it, but we're confident we can do it at home."
Perversely, there came a moment towards the end when Cardiff were booed by their own fans for playing negatively, keeping the ball as they sought a draw that would earn them the prestige and revenue of an extra match. Jones offered a swift riposte: "We were playing Arsenal, so give us a break. I can't fault anyone today. With a little bit more composure or luck, it might have gone for us."
The mental frailty of Wenger's young side was tested throughout, as Cardiff supporters made plain their visceral loathing for the Londoners with the usual intimidating rendition of Men of Harlech, and a stream of invective towards Aaron Ramsey, their former teenage star. Such raw emotion was channelled into Cardiff's performance on the pitch, with Joe Ledley - an £8 million target for West Ham - influential at every turn.
Arsenal's resistance was precarious from the outset, and Cardiff almost sealed a deserved breakthrough when Paul Parry ghosted through their defence, before botching a straightforward chance with only Lukasz Fabianski to beat. The fluid, free-wheeling style that characterises Arsenal at their best was oddly absent, Samir Nasri's effort forcing a rare first-half intervention from Cardiff goalkeeper Peter Enckelman. The pace of the game was frenetic, and the rhythm ragged as a consequence. An Arsenal penalty for handball by Roger Johnson was turned down when referee Martin Atkinson deemed the centre-back had been pushed by Nicklas Bendtner.
Cardiff were given licence to attack almost at will but when Alexandre Song carelessly lost the ball, Parry collided headfirst with Bacary Sagna. At the other end Robin Van Persie toiled fruitlessly, while Emmanuel Eboue resorted to a brazen dive under Johnson's challenge, and was justly booked by Atkinson. The Championship team's reputation for obduracy came on the strength of only two defeats at home in the league this season, and appeared well-deserved.
Although Arsenal's 'pass and move' game came together gradually, the speed with which they executed it was sluggish, allowing Cardiff to pick off their attacks with ease. Van Persie remained committed, his deft touch setting up young left-back Kieran Gibbs for a fierce shot, but defensively Arsenal were susceptible and it was all Fabianski could do to push away McCormack's 30-yard drive with an acrobatic leap.
Wenger dispatched Emmanuel Adebayor in an effort to avert a replay, and the presence of Arsenal's totemic Togo striker briefly ruffled Cardiff. His neat interplay with Nasri set up a curling shot for the French playmaker that went close, but not as close as Cardiff came soon after, when McCormack's wonderful free-kick crashed against Fabianski's bar. There were less theatrics in the dying moments as Cardiff opted, controversially, for 'keep ball', but with the prize of the Emirates in sight, few could blame them.
Cardiff City (4-4-2): Enckelman; McNaughton, R Johnson, Gyepes, Kennedy; Burke, Rae, Ledley, Parry, Bothroyd (E Johnson 90), McCormack.Subs: Heaton (g), Purse, Comminges, Blake, Capaldi, McPhail.Arsenal (4-4-2): Fabianski; Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Gibbs; Eboue (Adebayor 65), Ramsey (Diaby 60), Song, Nasri; Bendtner (Wilshere 88), Van Persie.Subs: Almunia (g), Gallas, Denilson, Vela.Referee: M Atkinson (W Midlands).