If Friday night football is to become part of the FA Cup furniture, this was a rather enjoyable advert. It was Arsenal who made the fifth round, beating Coventry City 4-0, but the game was far tighter than it might look and far tighter than expected.
Until Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla scored the third and fourth in the final five minutes, Coventry were in the game, the gap between the teams looking far slimmer than the 54 league positions between them. Coventry manager Steven Pressley said that he was “exceptionally proud” of his players and understandably so.
Arsene Wenger praised Coventry too, and it was the sort of evening where almost everyone involved could take positives. Not least the supporters of both sides who, for all the criticisms of the cup, produced one of the better atmospheres at the Emirates this season. It was by turns celebratory, condemnatory – of Coventry’s dismal situation – fraternal and farcical. There was a light failure, a pitch invader and good performances across the pitch.
In the stands, the 5,000 Coventry City fans were exceptional, loud throughout and with two coordinated minutes of protest against the club’s temporary relocation to Northampton. There were banners, protest songs and signs saying ‘Why?’ This was met with supportive applause from the home fans and it nearly stopped feeling like a football match.
Arsenal v Coventry City in pictures
Arsenal v Coventry City in pictures
1/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Nicklas Bendtner of Arsenal misses his kick
2/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Coventry City's Blair Adams (right) and Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson battle for the ball
3/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
A Coventry City supporter gestures to Arsenal's Jack Wilshere as he walks onto the pitch to protest the fact that they are playing their home games 35 miles away in Northampton
4/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Mesut Oezil of Arsenal is challenged by John Fleck, left, and Leon Clarke of Coventry City
5/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Lukas Podolski scores a goal for Arsenal rounding Coventry Goalkeeper Joe Murphy
6/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Lukas Podolski celebrates after scoring his team's second goal of the match
7/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
The fans hold up lights when the Emirates stadium floodlights switch to half power
8/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, left, fouls Coventry City's Franck Moussa
9/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Lukas Podolski of Arsenal rises to score the second goal of the evening with a header
10/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain falls in the penalty box as he is challenged by Coventry City's Cyrus Christie
11/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud shoots and scores his goal against Coventry City
12/12 Arsenal v Coventry City
Santi Cazorla celebrates his goal against Coventry City
“Our fans were brilliant and they’ve been brilliant all season,” Pressley said afterwards. “They have been so supportive of the team, I’m sure they were exceptionally proud of the performance. We want this club playing back in Coventry and they have been right behind us.”
It was Coventry who could take the most from the opening moves. The visitors started with focus and vigour, Pressley urging them up the pitch and they followed orders, tackling hard and pushing Arsenal back. There was just enough time of goallessness, one quarter of an hour of football, for Coventry fans to start cheering every pass between their players.
That prompted Arsenal that enough was enough and moments later they were ahead. It was the sort of move that can decide a game like this, one that Coventry could not have stopped. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won the ball, slipped it to Mesut Ozil who threw Andrew Webster off the scent with a stepover. He then laid it through to Lukas Podolski, in the inside-left channel where he is so effective. His first touch controlled it, his second knocked it beyond goalkeeper Joe Murphy and his third put it into the net.
Soon later Arsenal had their second and it was Podolski, again, set up by his two other German team-mates. Serge Gnabry curled over a corner, Mertesacker flicked it on at the near post and Podolski was there, free at the back, to nod it in.
“Podolski can score goals, when you have a chance you want him to have it” Wenger said afterwards, of the outstanding returnee among five for Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played 71 minutes in his first start for five months while there were also run-outs for Carl Jenkinson and Nicklas Bendtner.
It was understandable, then, that Arsenal’s focus dropped at times from 2-0 up. They may have had an excuse. Late in the first half, half of the floodlights seemed to go out. Referee Bobby Madley thought about stopping the game, but decided otherwise, and thousands of fans made their own contribution with the lights on their phones. It looked like a crowd at a Coldplay concert and did not feel very different.
Football broke out again in the second half and Coventry were the better team. Leon Clarke, top scorer in League One this season, twice could have pulled a goal back. With the first, as he ran in behind, he shot at Fabianski and with the second, from the edge of the box, he hit the post.
Arsenal were woken up again and Bendtner and Podolski both missed chances, before a second protest minute which spilt over into a one-man pitch invasion, which took so long to stop that the Coventry fan managed a chat with Leon Clarke and Carl Baker first.
The most exciting part of the evening, though, at least for Arsenal fans, was their first competitive sight of Gedion Zelalem, their brilliant teenage midfielder who is so implausibly young that he was born – in January 1997 – after Arsene Wenger took over at Highbury. “That is more damaging for me than for him,” Wenger joked afterwards.
Coventry were worn out by their efforts and conceded two more unreflective goals in the final minutes. It was a more experienced substitute than Zelalem, Olivier Giroud, who scored the third, finishing Kieran Gibbs’ cross at the near post with five minutes left. Carl Jenkinson, then, tried his luck from the right, Murphy parried and Cazorla volleyed in, the visiting defenders too tired to pick him up. Ozil even hit the post in added time. If 4-0 was too much, 5-0 certainly would have been.
Substitutes: Arsenal Cazorla (Bendtner, 71), Zelalem (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 71), Giroud (Poldolski, 79). Coventry City J Clarke (Moussa, 88).
Booked: Arsenal Wilshere.
Man of the match: Podolski.
Match rating: 7/10.
Possession: Arsenal 61% Coventry City 39%
Attempts on target: Arsenal 19 Coventry 8.
Referee: R Madley (West Yorks)