LONDON – The FA Cup produced another boisterous, thrilling, ultimately frantic fourth-round tie, as Arsenal managed to look both supremely well-tuned in attack and familiarly brittle at the back in the course of this defeat of Brighton & Hove Albion.
This was a match that showcased both the tenacious old magic of the Cup and the more everyday magic of watching this reliably soft-centred Arsenal try to defend a lead. Twice Brighton cut a two-goal deficit in half to push the Cup holders all the way in a match that had looked at the end of the first half, with Arsenal 2-0 up, like providing little more than confirmation of Mesut Ã–zil and Theo Walcottâ€™s return to starting health.
With four minutes left, Brighton might even have had a penalty to level the scores as the ball was struck against Calum Chambersâ€™ hand. Short of a pre-emptive amputation it was hard at the time to see how Chambers could have avoided the ball. Afterwards Chris Hughton, Brightonâ€™s manager, was adamant that Chambersâ€™ arm had appeared, with benefit of a replay, to be â€œoutstretchedâ€.
Either way, this was a brilliantly entertaining Cup tie at the close of a long weekend that has demonstrated the ability of Football League teams to compete against the elite and the enduring domestic popularity of the competition. The Amex was rocking before kick-off, a wonderful, groovily-cantilevered new-build stadium, all swooping lightweight curves beneath a noise-funnel corrugated roof. In spite of which, it always seemed likely Brighton would opt for constriction rather than cavalier attack. This is a team whose season has been steadily resuscitated by four wins in five under Hughton, coinciding with a beefing-up of the defence and the rediscovery of the art of the clean sheet.
So much for planning then. With 90 seconds gone any thoughts of making Arsenal sweat by holding their ground were gone as a moment of defensive slackness was expertly punished. Chambers has only rarely shown his marauding side on the right flank this season, but he did his best Garrincha impression here, storming past Joe Bennett and crossing low for Walcott, who had pulled away from the two centre-backs. One neat touch and an instant low half-volleyed finish and the ball was in the corner of David Stockdaleâ€™s net.
It was in more ways than one the perfect start. The big news in Arsenalâ€™s starting XI was a widely predicted first start in over a year for Walcott, a first start since October for Ã–zil, and a first start for the two in each otherâ€™s company since December 2013. This is, of course, still a footballing bromance-that-might-have-been, with a general assumption that Ã–zil and Walcottâ€™s pooled gifts â€“ sublime passing, exhilarating speed â€“ must eventually bring the best out of one another.
In the minutes after Walcottâ€™s goal Arsenal did look supremely fluent, with Ã–zil, playing just behind Olivier Giroud, finding plenty of space between the lines and Walcott showing undimmed speed and encouraging aggression in the challenge during an explosive if understandably scattergun performance. The second goal was coming and it duly arrived.
Tomas Rosicky meandered in off the left flank, waited for a gap to appear and nudged a lovely reverse pass into Ã–zilâ€™s run. The touch was instant, and the low shot cleverly angled across Stockdale to make it 2-0. On the touchline Wenger, wrapped in his shin-length quilted gown, allowed himself a punch of the air. Arsenalâ€™s fans had already begun to sing about Wembley, but for the manager the prospect of a fit and happy Ã–zil-Walcott axis providing a high-grade razor edge in the second half of the season is a more immediate source of intrigue.
Brighton, meanwhile, had begun to stir. Sent out to hold what they so briefly had in a robust 4-1-4-1, they had a first clear sight of goal after half an hour, Sam Baldock shooting over after IÃ±igo CalderÃ³nâ€™s robust challenge on Laurent Koscielny. With Rohan Ince and Danny Hollas getting a grip of central midfield the sense of a familiar vulnerability behind Arsenalâ€™s attacking fluency was confirmed five minutes into the second half as Brighton pulled a goal back helped by a horrible piece of defending. Under little pressure, Kieran Gibbs hoofed a clearance into the evening sky that landed near the edge of the Arsenal area. Aaron Ramsey was bullied by Baldock into chesting the ball into his own area where Chris Oâ€™Grady shot low and hard into the corner of the net.
The crowd were roused, but so too were Arsenal and eight minutes later Rosicky made and then scored the goal of the game, winning the ball back and slaloming into space before laying the ball sideways to Giroud: his dinked pass back to Rosicky was volleyed into the corner with thrilling severity. In a fevered second half it was a deliciously self-contained moment of craft from the Czech. â€œIf you love football, you love Rosicky,â€ Wenger shrugged afterwards.
Again, though, Brighton hit back, Baldock setting up a grandstand last 15 minutes with an expertly taken goal, Monreal and Koscielny parting like a set of creaky double doors to allow him to dink the ball over Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal held on though and for all their alarms here, they will enter the fifth round as the only team from the Premier Leagueâ€™s top six to make it at the first time of asking.
Man of the match Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal) – The Guardian