A late Olivier Giroud goal broke the heart of the Lilywhites after an enthralling Emirates FA Cup fourth round tie at a sold out Deepdale.
Callum Robinson had given a rampant North End a seventh minute lead as they tore apart their much-vaunted Premier League opponents, but were left to rue missed opportunities to double their advantage.
Aaron Ramsey equalised in the first minute of the second half as the Gunners improved considerably after the break, but it took a late, late effort from the French striker and Arsenal skipper for the night to end the resistance of Simon Grayson’s side.
Arsene Wenger had certainly taken the game seriously, with only David Ospina in goal and Ainsley Maitland-Niles not having started games regularly this season, but they were left chasing lilywhite shadows in the first half as the home side put on what was possibly the best 45 minutes in the current manager’s time at the club.
The opener came from some brilliant play by Paul Gallagher, operating on the right hand side of a 4-4-2, who picked up the ball and switched play to Greg Cunningham. The full back fed his fellow Irishman Aiden McGeady, on his inside, who beat three men, before slotting a ball through to Jordan Hugill in the box. The powerful striker was tackled by Gabriel, but the ball broke for Robinson who slotted past Ospina from ten yards out in a left hand channel.
The pressing game, led by the insatiable Ben Pearson, who was like a terrier at the feet of the likes of Ramsey and Granit Xhaka, harassing and hassling every time they had the ball, caused mistakes and loose balls from the normally calm north Londonders
And it was from more pressure that almost brought a second at the half’s mid-point as McGeady again showed a quick pair of feet to find Gallagher, who laid the ball off for Hugill near the right hand goal-line at the edge of the box. The No.25 lifted the ball to the back post for strike partner Robinson, whose header beat the Arsenal keeper, but not Shkodran Mustafi on the line.
But it that was close, it was agonising for North End two minutes later when Robinson broke onto another break up of Arsenal passing and found acres of space on the right wing. Hugill had burst into the box and was completely unmarked, but the ball in from the former Villa man was just an inch over-hit and this meant a slide from his fellow forward was a fraction of a second too late.
The atmosphere was crackling and the action on the pitch breathless as the chances kept coming for North End. Pearson almost added to his plaudits with a 30 yard pile-driver that Ospina tipped around the post for a corner and then Marnick Vermijl, in for the injured Alex Baptiste at right back, caught McGeady’s deep cross from the opposite flank on the volley at the back post, but skewing the chance just wide of the right hand upright.
At this points the away end were booing their team and this finally sparked them to life as Ramsey worked his way through after a quick inter-change of passes with Alex Iwobi and Lucas Perez, but Chris Maxwell was superb in his anticipation, mirroring the shadow work of his outfield players to usher the Welsh Euro 2016 hero away from goal and preventing the danger from escalating further.
But this was rare respite for the yellow-clad visitors as PNE came again and this time Gabriel was needed to clear a ball off his goal line once more after a piece of quality from Paul Gallagher, who had worked himself time and space in the box and then chipped Ospina, only to see the Brazilian hook the ball away.
Referee Bobby Madley had been alert to North End’s high intensity game, harshly penalising a lot of their genuine attempts to take the ball off the Gunners, but it was a decision to disallow the second that particularly riled the home support five minutes before the break.
Gallagher was again involved, crossing from the left this time after a short corner, but after Hugill had gone up with Ospina and won the ball, allowing Robinson to head home from close range, the match official pulled play back for what he saw as a foul by the former Port Vale man on the Columbian custodian – a view not shared by the vociferous majority in the ground.
However, whatever Wenger said at half-time had an immediate affect for Arsenal as they were back level within 50 seconds of the restart. Ramsey collecting a loose ball in a rare bit of space and the No.8 fired into the top right hand corner from 15 yards.
The second half was equally as competitive as the first, without the same number of clear cut opportunities for either side. Simon Makienok, Alan Browne and Daryl Horgan – for his debut – were all introduced as North End’s English manager looked to try and get a winner, but it was at the other end his side had to be diligent.
With 18 minutes left there was a wonderful save from Maxwell to deny Mustafi, after Ramsey’s corner was caught on the volley by the German centre half. North End’s Welsh stopper tipped up the ball from the vicious strike and then claimed the ball in the air.
The warning bells were ringing shortly after when Giroud, the Arsenal skipper, had the ball in the net, only for the offside flag to go up, but with one minute left on the clock the international was not to be denied.
Lucas Perez, who had been a bright spark for the Gunners managed to work his way into the box and with the tiring PNE legs tracking back, a clever back heel found its way to Giroud, who hooked the ball into the net from six yards out.
There was still time for Maxwell to deny substitute Danny Welbeck a goal on his return from eight months out, against his former club, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, but soon a sharp shrill from the whistle of Mr Madley ended the Preston North End hopes, although the team left the field to a standing ovation after a gargantuan effort against one of the top teams in Europe.
PNE line-up: Maxwell, Vermijl, Cunningham, Pearson, Clarke (c), Huntington, Gallagher (Browne, 60), Johnson (Horgan, 81), Robinson, Hugill (Makienok, 75), McGeady. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Doyle, Spurr, Pringle.
Arsenal line-up: Ospina, Gabriel, Ramsey, Perez (Reine-Adelaide, 90), Giroud (c), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Welbeck, 83), Iwobi, Monreal, Mustafi, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles (Holding, 90). Subs not used: Martinez, Jenkinson, Dasilva, Willock.
Attendance: 22,185 (5,029 Arsenal fans)
Referee: Mr R Madley