Wenger's woes ease with rout of lowly Lincoln
Arsenal 5 Lincoln 0
These have been unhappy days in the era of late Arsene Wenger, and while the thrashing from Bayern Munich on Tuesday night posed the question how much worse it might get, the reassuring answer for the Frenchman was that the truly apocalyptic FA Cup shock was never on the cards.
Arsenal put more goals between them and Lincoln City, from football's fifth tier, than Bayern did on Tuesday night, although not as many as the Germans did over the course of the two legs. Five goals felt about right for a full-strength Arsenal team against a Lincoln side who were playing the game of all their lives and did well to hold out for all but first-half injury time, when Theo Walcott scored.
What more can be said about the effect upon Arsenal, other than they have arrested the slump in a small way and earned a place in the FA Cup semi-finals - although their only two victories in the last five games have come against teams from outside the 92 clubs of the Premier League and Football League?
It will be against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Saturday that truly meaningful progress will have to come, and there are still no guarantees in that regard. Another protest against Wenger's regime was held before kick-off.
As for Lincoln, their cup run ends but not before they gave it one last go in one of the biggest football stadiums in England. They closed Arsenal down well in the first-half and even created a good chance for Nathan Arnold, which was not taken, but this was a giant-killing that never looked close to a proverbial FA Cup homicide, despite the hard-running and good organisation.
For Wenger, there was an injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain which necessitated the midfielder's substitution, otherwise it was straightforward. Afterwards, Wenger's opposite number Dan Cowley was on the pitch clapping the Lincoln fans long after his players had left the pitch, and he even got a smattering of applause from the home support.
It took an almighty deflection on its way in, and even the Arsenal players realised that it would be inappropriate to celebrate a goal against the leaders of the Vanarama National League, but there was still palpable relief around Walcott's opener in first-half injury-time.
Wenger's team had not been under pressure; it was more that they did not look like a team 87 places above their opponents in the great pyramid of English football. They had 76 per cent possession in the first-half and only once did Petr Cech have to make a save - but even once felt like one too many.
For Arsenal, the small details that can go wrong did go wrong: another needless booking for Granit Xhaka, and an injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain that meant he was replaced after 27 minutes by Mesut Ozil. This was a very strong Arsenal team and bench but given their schedule there was no reason for it to be otherwise.
Lincoln kicked off with all their players in the right half of the pitch, who duly sprinted forward in pursuit of an up-and-under. The real quality came from midfielder Arnold, who sent Laurent Koscielny out the wrong door with a change of direction on 28 minutes. But having worked the ball on to his left foot, he could not quite get the ball past Cech.
Arsenal had relatively little for their possession: a Walcott shot on to the post and an Ozil cross that almost crept in. It was when Arsenal finally established some territory that they scored, with Lincoln failing to clear a loose ball in the box and Kieran Gibbs laying it back for Walcott, whose stroked finish clipped off a Lincoln body and beat Paul Farman in goal.
The second-half was much easier for Arsenal, as the full-tilt game of Lincoln began to fray at the edges, and once a second had gone in, the belief started to flag. Unlike the first-half, Lincoln found themselves ceding much of their own half to an Arsenal team who were eager to make sure the margin of victory was suitable.
The second came from Olivier Giroud, rolled in after Hector Bellerin exchanged passes with Alexis Sanchez and cut the ball back. Both Arsenal full-backs attacking relentlessly was difficult for the non-league side to handle and Gibbs forced the third, turned into his own net by the Lincoln captain Luke Waterfall.
Sanchez curved a right-footed shot into the left corner of the Lincoln goal for the fourth and Aaron Ramsey walked the fifth in. Finally the difference was evident and the mild anxiety of the first half long forgotten. A third FA Cup final in four seasons is one game away for Wenger, who will point to his record in that regard when the judgments on the season are made.