The score was 2-2 after 90 minutes - and after 120 - forcing the tie to a shootout in which the Gunners prevailed.
Bit of magic gives Arsenal the lead
The script said this would be an easy win for Arsenal; the Gunners a bit of a bogey team for Notts County, many remembering their last meeting in the 2015 Continental Cup final.
Both had recently tasted defeat away to Manchester City and neither side wanted to give up a spot in the semi-final. If the script had already been written, then the Lady Pies had failed to read it as they started brighter, pressing Arsenal from the get-go. Shot followed by corner followed by another shot, Sari van Veenendaal alert to the danger, but most chances glancing just wide or high.
Two early yellows, one for Ellen White for a bad (and pointless) challenge on Leah Williamson, and a harsh one for Dani Buet for catching Jordan Nobbs. The referee laying down an early marker; this was to be a clean game or you’d be cautioned.
Birthday girl van Veenendaal produced a fingertip save to tip White’s shot wide, and this was immediately followed by Jess Clarke striking one off of the bar, then White again, this time firing wide. Chances and half chances came thick and fast for the visitors, but they were not making any count.
Almost half way through the first half and it was first blood to the Gunners. Nobbs worked the ball well down the left, crossing deep to the back post for Alex Scott to send back across to the edge of the area. There, the ball found Kelly Smith, and the veteran curled the ball around her marker, finding inside of the post.
It was against the run of play but that’s just what Arsenal can do; a flash of magic and a team that are so used to winning are on top. Once again, Kelly Smith showing her pedigree on her first start for ten months.
Instant reply levels the scores - then tilts them in County's favour
Arsenal celebrated and Notts restarted the game; winning a free kick almost from the kick-off and resorting parity before you could catch your breath.
It was Buet with the 30-yard delivery into the box and Sophie Bradley-Auckland – another player who knows a thing or two about long injury layoffs – produced a flicked header across goal to find the back of the net, levelling things up.
Shaken, Arsenal started playing more around the away box, County giving them far too much time and space. Nobbs was looking to bring more players into the game as the visitors tried to weather the storm; the ball bouncing off of shins as more bodies piled into the box.
Asisat Oshoala’s burning pace was far too much for Maja Krantz as she raced onto a long hopeful ball. Charging into the box, the Nigerian forced Carly Telford into a reaction save, the big number one palming the ball wide. Then it was Dominque Janssen’s turn to run at the County defence, carrying the ball half the length of the pitch with barely a tackle on her, urged to shoot, and her effort was deflected so to be calmly held by Telford.
Down the other end, however, Notts would take the lead completely against the run of play as White scrambled the ball in to provoke mass confusion.
Van Veenendaal held the ball on her toe, expecting the goal kick, her teammates already back in the centre-circle expecting the restart. The fans mumbled at the referee as he deliberated with his assistants; goal or no goal? Time to flip a coin maybe? No, no, it was a goal. Notts County in front.
Buet launched a cross into the box and White helped it on as Arsenal scrambled, van Veenendaal unable to claim and Aviv Luik with the final touch to help it over the line before a red shirt hoofed it back out of goal. Had it crossed? Was there a foul in there? The home support were unhappy when the goal was given, but maybe that was just because of the confusion.
From scrambling in one box to the other, Smith was running wild unmarked around the Notts box while Rachel Williams nodded over at the other end. Notts looked good value to add another, and to be frank, it was a wonder they had only scored twice.
Still, a Fara Williams free-kick sparked a huge penalty shout for the Gunners as White clattered into Oshoala. It looked like the former Arsenal forward went to head the ball away but failed to get up onto the attacker. The fans were incensed as the ref waved play on, with him thinking it was not malicious, but it certainly looked like the Lady Pies got away with one.
Petulant red card lets the Gunners back in
In the second half, Notts once again started strongest. Buet produced a hopeful lob from distance, while a nice bit of interplay between herself and Clarke followed - ending with the latter firing a half-volley right at the 'keeper.
Arsenal responded though as a 25-yard effort from Nobbs just took the paint off of the bar as it skimmed over. Smith followed this up with an off-target 25-yard effort, while Dan Carter's strike on the turn was wide.
Oshoala had another penalty shout turned down, while Fara Williams sent a free-kick in a good position sailing over the bar.
Then came the game-changing moment. On the sidelines, Chelsea Weston was primed and ready to come on, the fourth official’s board with 09 in red, it looked like White would be making way. But Rick Passmoor waited. The clock ticked and Passmoor waited.
White was off on her bike to chase a loose ball, Williamson ready to shepherd it out near the dugouts. It looked as if she tried to keep the ball in play as it was drifting out, but Williamson was complaining to the referee as he reached to his pocket again. A second yellow for White, for kicking the ball away. Weston sat back on an angry and confused away bench as White trudged off.
Arsenal then started to pile the pressure on, penning the visitors in. Nobbs again was involved and her ball to Oshoala at the back post looked a good one, only for the Nigerian to mistime her header as Telford gratefully hung onto it.
The Gunners were relentless as they fired shot after shot at Notts, while the visitors looked to seal the win on the counter as Rachel Williams headed just over the bar.
An Arsenal cross, a Notts clearance. An Arsenal cross, a Notts clearance. Never ending. Nothing but pressure from the hosts. And then, the pay-off. Katie McCabe sent a cross into the area and Natalia Pablos headed past Telford at point blank range. Less than ten minutes left on the clock, County spent, Borehamwood in full voice.
Arsenal were then denied a late winner as Telford tipped Oshoala’s excellent effort over the bar. Five minutes were to be added on, Smith with a direct free kick straight into the wall but nothing more. It was to be extra time.
Running on empty
Arsenal might as well have got their tents out as they camped in the County half, most opting to drag their sleeping bags into the box - the Gunners relentless after Notts were reduced to ten. Did either team have the energy to go another 30 minutes?
Clarke looked to get Notts attacking again, but just had too much to do. Fending off first Nobbs then Casey Stoney, her legs already heavy, possession was lost. The visitors enjoyed a bright start to the period, but it wouldn't last.
And then all Arsenal. Nobbs was again chancing her arm from 25-yards, and again scraping the paint off of the bar as it went over. Oshoala had the big chance though as she was left with her head in her hands; the ball served up on a plate by Natalia to the near post, but the young Nigerian poking wide from two yards.
A succession of corners came for Arsenal, and Notts replied a succession of scrambles to keep the game tied. Arsenal baffled, what more could it take?
McCabe flashed another ball across the face from the left but there was no one to nudge it over the line as it curled a whisker wide. The ball sat up nicely for Nobbs shortly after but her strike was off-target, while Oshoala’s effort was punched off of the line by Telford in the dying seconds.
All eyes on the ref as the clock ticked down, and to penalties we went.
Settled from the spot
County went first but it was advantage Arsenal; Buet denied by van Veenendaal. Fara Williams then consolidated that save by putting the Gunners 1-0 up.
Clarke levelled things up, having missed from the spot against City last week, but Notts were chasing it now as Natalia sent Telford the wrong way for 2-1.
Van Veenendaal looked to have secured things when she saved Leanne Crichton's effort, but Telford kept Notts in it by denying Nobbs. Rachel Williams then made it 2-2.
Arsenal remained ahead as Smith converted, but, after Weston slotted home hers for Notts, Carter was denied brilliantly by Telford as she tipped the forward's effort onto the bar. It was all square and it was sudden death.
That didn't last long though. Luik stepped up, fired to her left, but found van Veenendaal there to save and put Arsenal one finish away from the last four.
McCabe was to take the big one, but she was as calm as you like, sending Telford right as she sent the ball into the top left - firing her side into the semi-finals.
To the victor, the spoils
Notts County were once again undone late in the game, and once again left heartbroken by Arsenal.
Much like against Manchester City last month, after all they put in, they didn’t deserve to lose the game. They had plenty of opportunities to further their lead, to get the all-important third goal, but they couldn’t take their chances. Then to weather an onslaught from Arsenal, the goal was of course coming, but to make it all the way through extra time too. The first penalty shoot-out in the club’s short history not a happy one.
A huge performance came from Clarke, who ran and ran, her tank long empty, fumes driving her the length of the pitch over and over again; and one brief but big performance from young Laura O’Neill who looked calm and composed as she helped her tired teammates take the game all the way.
Arsenal would have rather not had to rely on spot kicks, needing penalties to overcome Birmingham City in the previous round too. Not being able to get the job done inside of 90 or even 120 minutes isn’t like the serial winners.
Arsenal are much-changed over the last five or so years, as the FAWSL has taken shape, and there are many rivals to their many crowns. The Gunners much favourited for silverware every year though and this year are a team meant to challenge Chelsea and City for the title.
There are so many bright sparks in their team; with Kelly Smith lighting up the pitch as if she were still 20-something, Nobbs creating and feeding her teammates, and Natalia always looking like good money for a goal or two.
But so far in this competition against two stubborn teams, it easily could have been Birmingham who progressed from the last round, Carter’s leveller coming with just ten minutes left on the clock in that game. And all those missed chances for Notts today, van Veenendaal earning a big slice of cake for her troubles, keeping her side in the contest and stepping up in the biggest way in the shootout.