Long protected at Arsenal by FA Cup glory, Arsene Wenger endured his earliest elimination this morning when his title defense ended at managerless, second-tier side Nottingham Forest.
The decision to rest stars backfired as a 4-2 collapse saw Arsenal knocked out in the third round, when Premier League teams enter, for the first time since Wenger took charge in 1996.
"It hurts even more because it's a competition we love," said Wenger, who has lifted the FA Cup in three of the last four seasons and is the 145-year-old competition's most successful manager with seven triumphs.
While Wenger has endured a Premier League title drought since 2004, success in soccer's oldest cup competition has helped the Frenchman to gain new contracts.
The manner of the loss in Nottingham was mortifying for Wenger, who was forced to watch from the stands as he started a three-match touchline ban for misconduct toward a referee.
"They were sharper than us," Wenger said, "more incisive and more dominant in the challenges."
Eric Lichaj was the match-winner with two goals for Forest, which is 14th in the League Championship and without a manager since firing Mark Warburton a week ago.
After Lichaj headed in Kieran Dowell's free kick in the 20th minute, Per Mertesacker quickly leveled but the American defender was on target again just before halftime. Rob Holding's weak headed clearance fell straight to Lichaj, who brought the ball down with his chest and unleashed a dipping volley into the far corner of the net.
"My wife told me that if I get a hat trick any time during the year, then I get a dog," Lichaj said. "So I was trying to get the penalty."
There were two in the second half. Ben Brereton extended Forest's lead in the 64th after Holding tripped Matthew Cash.
Although Welbeck pulled one back — seizing on goalkeeper Jordan Smith's losing his grip on the ball — Arsenal conceded a second penalty. Mathieu Debuchy challenged former Gunners defender Armand Traore from behind and Kieran Dowell netted from the spot in the 85th.
With a two-goal cushion it should have been a calm conclusion for the hosts, but Joe Worrall was sent off three minutes later for a sliding tackle on Chuba Akpom.
It was too late for Arsenal, which rested Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, to mount a comeback.
And Forest secured a victory that revived memories of its heyday under Brian Clough.
The modest central England team stunned soccer from 1978 to 1980 when it won the top flight and then back-to-back European Cups. But Forest, which reached the FA Cup final in 1991 when it lost to Tottenham, has been out of the Premier League since 1999 and only avoided relegation to the third tier last season on goal difference.
Now the team, which was bought last year by Olympiakos owner Vangelis Marinakis, is preparing for the fourth round.