Arsenal lined up for their 5th Round FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough coming off a strong start to the second half of the season, only marred by the 2-1 loss to their North London neighbors a couple of weeks back (and the loss to Southampton on New Years Day). And while Middlesbrough had the confidence of scalping Chelsea in the last round and a decent run of games themselves, the vast distance in quality between the Championship and Premier League became quickly apparent. Arsenal were rampant from the first whistle, though their quick, precision passing and high press against the two banks of five defenders failed to reap the goal they deserved. That was until the 27th minute, when Sanchez thrust forward and passed the ball to Welbeck at the edge of the box. He laid it off to Cazorla, who sent a perfectly weighted ball to Gibbs. The left back sent a low cross in toward Giroud, who finished powerfully past Middlesbrough keeper Tomas Mejias.
Two minutes later it was two, as Sanchez first earned a corner through his consistently resilient play and then delivered a ball into the path of a charging Giroud who volleyed beautifully across goal from a tight angle. Arsenal continued to push for a third throughout the rest of the first half but some nice saves from Mejias and some missed chances left the score at 2-0. Arsenal had 67 percent possession and 10 shots to 1 (with 4 to 1 on goal). The second half largely followed the pattern of the first, with Middlesbrough sniffing out a few half chances but Arsenal dominating possession and chances for large spells. The difference, of course, was the third goal never came. But it was unnecessary and the game finished as one of the most complete performances by the Gunners all season, albeit against a lower level team.
Sanchez was back to his hard working best a few days after injury fears were heightening and only denied a goal by an excellent save of a glancing header in the second half. Rosicky replaced him in the 72nd minute and Walcott came on for an underwhelming Welbeck at the same time. The ex-United star can never be faulted for his effort, or the layoff that contributed to the first goal, but continues to spurn chances and give the ball up carelessly a little too often for my tastes, continuing the questions about his finishing touch. Gabriel Paulista also looked impressive in his first appearance on the pitch for Arsenal, with three key interventions in the box to cut out Middlesbrough threats. He did earn a yellow for a professional foul and gave up a needless corner near the end, but seemed to shore up the defense in a way Mertesacker has too often failed to this season. Walcott had a good chance to score in the 87th minute, when a lovely 20-yard Rosicky through ball left him one on one with the keeper, but his weak shot was well saved. And so it ended with the 2-0 scoreline and a comfortable afternoon for the Gunners, who now await their quarterfinal draw, which will be announced tomorrow.
There have already been a number of upsets in the FA Cup so far, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all gone, but Liverpool came back to stake their place in the quarters with help from an unlikely source, as Balotelli contributed to a win for the second game running with a strong free kick that was rebounded in by Adam Lallana to complete the 2-1 comeback. United will expect to join their rivals in the next round as they line up against Preston North End tomorrow. Aston Villa won 2-1 against Leicester and Bradford City pulled off another famous win, beating Sunderland 2-0, to join West Brom, Blackburn and Reading in the next round. Arsenal are thus three games away from a FA Cup repeat, which would tie Wenger for the record of 6, though they will probably face Liverpool and/or hated United along the way.