Wenger hails Rosicky as Arsenal keep Cup hopes alive
Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Arsenal 3
Giants have fallen on the great FA Cup weekend of January 24-25, 2015, but as the smoke clears and the casualties are cleared away, it is the holders who march on at the head of the Premier League's survivors in the fifth round as the bookies' favourites to win it.
Not that it was always easy, and the tie was by means settled until the final whistle, but given the humiliations visited upon Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton over the previous 24 hours, it was enough for Arsene Wenger that Arsenal are through. They are the highest-ranked side in the Premier League table in the fifth round, with Manchester United still hopeful of joining them.
Theo Walcott scored his first goal in more than a year, Tomas Rosicky was beguiling on occasions, Brighton fought back from a dreadful first half to score twice and Wenger complained bitterly about the tackles meted out to some of his players. Not every aspect of this FA Cup tie was a surprise and had referee Michael Oliver given an 86th-minute penalty to Brighton, it would not have been a major injustice for these teams to have to reconvene for a replay.
Afterwards, Wenger reflected on the weekend's Cup shocks and admitted that, as he watched the results come in, his first thought was to "check twice" that they were genuine. The reality for Wenger is that the bookmakers have his team at the head of the betting now, which is relatively new ground for a side that in recent years have not been asked to lead from the front.
"I'm on the other side of the game," said Wenger, when asked about his team's status as FA Cup favourites. "You always want to know what will happen. I always have to stop people thinking what will happen because no one knows. Manchester United will believe they can go through. You can't predict who will win it."
Certainly, it would have been different if referee Oliver had given a penalty when a shot hit by the substitute Adrian Colunga struck the arm of Calum Chambers late on. The Brighton manager Chris Hughton said afterwards that it should have been given and he had a point.
Hughton bemoaned his team's slow start and the goal from Walcott within two minutes. Brighton have won three of their last four in the Championship and yet by half-time Mesut Ozil had scored a second and the game looked dead.
After the break, Chris O'Grady and Sam Baldock scored the goals that made the tie interesting and it was telling that Wenger considered it necessary to send on his star turn Alexis Sanchez before the end.
Walcott has struggled to force his way back into the Arsenal team even though, at times during his prolonged absence, he felt like the missing answer to a lot of the side's problems. Lately, however, they have got on just fine without the Englishman, nine years an Arsenal player now, and this was only his second start of the season and his first goal since January 1, 2014.
Playing at right-back, Chambers got away from Joe Bennett down the right and cut the ball back to Walcott on the edge of the area. He controlled the ball well, giving himself space and time for the shot which he dispatched neatly past David Stockdale and into the goalkeeper's far right corner.
A sobering start for Brighton, who at that point looked every inch the 19th-placed team in the Championship. In the first half they had problems making anything stick when it came to their forwards and created just one first-half chance. Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny was tackled by O'Grady in the act of clearing a cross from Inigo Calderon from the right and Baldock missed the target with the loose ball.
By then they were 2-0 down, a first goal from Ozil since he scored against Aston Villa on 20 September. This was created by the vision of Rosicky who, elegant at the best of times, was afforded enough space on this occasion to run the game. He had embarked on a sequence of no-look passes and this was the best of the lot, dividing a square Brighton defence and presenting Ozil with time to take a touch and score.
That looked like it for Brighton but they could count on some chaos in Arsenal's back four at some point and so it arrived with five minutes of the second half played when Nacho Monreal hit a vertical clearance that put Chambers under pressure. The ball simply hit the full-back and O'Grady had little problem holding off Mathieu Flamini and drilling a low shot past Wojciech Szczesny.
O'Grady has one of those football CVs that looks like a guide to the Football League but, at 29, he is strong and he took this chance well. There has been some debate over his future at Brighton although on this evidence Hughton will wish to keep hold of him. Szczesny was back in goal for the first time since his smoking indiscretion that followed the duff clearance in the defeat at Southampton.
The fourth goal came nine minutes later, a mini-masterpiece from Rosicky who jinked past a defender outside the box, back-heeled the ball to Olivier Giroud and readied himself for the return, hitting it first time on the volley past Stockdale. "Wonderful," was Wenger's verdict on Rosicky's performance. "If you love football," he added, in one of those moments when the Arsenal manager permits himself a lyrical interlude, "then you love Rosicky."
The home team's second goal was a finish of Sanchez-standard, by then on the pitch as a substitute, a delicate lift over Szczesny as Baldock chased Danny Holla's well-judged ball through Arsenal's back line. In the closing stages, the visitors had as many chances as Brighton to score, and there was a Sanchez free-kick deflected on to the crossbar. Even so it remained an interesting game.
Arsenal survived the penalty appeal against Chambers and find themselves in a fifth-round draw tonight that is without so many of the usual big guns. "With the results this weekend, you want to be cautious," Wenger said, "the Cup is the Cup". And for the time being it remains in Arsenal's possession, with the immediate future prospects for retaining it rosier than they might have expected. (© Independent News Service)