There are 17 places between Arsenal and Middlesbrough but even in this edition of the FA Cup that has been so full of the proverbial slaying of giants, it felt a very long way indeed today between the top of the Championship and the upper reaches of the Premier League.
Once again, there have been more Premier League casualties in this FA Cup fifth round weekend, and once again the holders have swerved the wreckage. Arsenal’s progress to the draw tomorrow evening for the quarter-final ties has been marble-smooth and never truly looked in doubt once Olivier Giroud had scored twice in the space of three minutes in the first half, while Middlesbrough struggled to lay a glove on their opposition.
Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 0 player ratings
Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 0 player ratings
1/22 Wojciech Szczesny
Back in the side, the Polish stopper had little to do other than save from Adomah. 6
2/22 Calum Chambers
Impressive distribution throughout, he was always looking to start moves down the right. 7
3/22 Gabriel Paulista
Communicated well on his debut despite the language barrier although he was booked for a cynical foul on Reach. 7
4/22 Laurent Koscielny
Marshalled the Arsenal backline without trouble. 7
5/22 Kieran Gibbs
His pace allowed him to play much of the game high upfield where he was a constant menace for the visitors. 8
6/22 Mathieu Flamini
Did his job effectively in midfield - and without getting booked. 6
7/22 Alexis Sanchez
His pace, power and skill was a constant thorn in Middlesbrough's side until he was rested late on. 8
8/22 Santi Cazorla
Dictated the whole game from midfield with an array of clever touches, passes and off the ball movement. 9
9/22 Mesut Ozil
The German's creativity created numerous Arsenal chances. 8
10/22 Danny Welbeck
Demonstrated strength and trickery in attack, but often rushed his efforts at goal. 7
11/22 Olivier Giroud
Took his quickfire goals brilliantly in another strong performance. 9
12/22 Tomas Mejias
Made a number of eye-catching saves in both halves. 7
13/22 Ryan Fredericks
On loan from Tottenham, the 22-year-old was given a tough time on his return to North London. 5
14/22 Kenneth Omeruo
The Chelsea loanee stood up to the Arsenal attackers early on, but faded after conceding. 5
15/22 Ben Gibson
The young defender was given a tough evening, but remained determined throughout. 6
16/22 Adam Clayton
Sometimes struggled to track the runs of Sanchez, but cleared what would have been his own-goal off the line. 5
17/22 George Friend
Caught out of position on occasions. 5
18/22 Patrick Bamford
The forward was penned back by constant Arsenal possession and was eventually subbed. 5
19/22 Grant Leadbitter
The set-pieces of the midfielder had little effect. 5
20/22 Lee Tomlin
The burly playmaker saw little of the ball and failed to make an impact. 4
21/22 Albert Adomah
The midfielder made a number of bursting runs into the Arsenal box and was Middlesbrough's most threatening player. 6
Ineffective in both boxes until his stoppage time header struck the post. 5
The away end was full for Boro’s first visit to the Emirates in almost six years, and a team undefeated in ten games were set-up by their manager Aitor Karanka to keep things locked down for as long as possible. But then it is hard to control an attack as all-encompassing and multi-faceted as Arsenal when they are at home and hungry for goals.
This was, after all, the team that eliminated the champions of England in their own stadium in the previous round, so there was no reason for Middlesbrough to be inhibited. But their manager Karanka was scathing in his assessment of the first half performance, suggesting that “the players thought it was going to be easy because we played very well against Manchester City.”
There has been no inclination from the Arsenal manager to take risks in the Cup this season and he named a strong team led by Santi Cazorla, captain for the day, and gave a debut to the new Brazilian signing Gabriel Paulista. Gabriel had a quiet afternoon, enlivened just once for a booking for a foul on the substitute Adam Reach – the kind of tackle that gave some clue as to what he is not yet a fully-fledged Brazil international.
For Giroud, this was a significant moment as he stakes his case for a place in the team amongst greater competition. His two goals were extremely well-taken even in the context of Arsenal’s dominance and as the season reaches its critical point for the club they will need performances like this from him, as opposed to the kind he managed at White Hart Lane two weeks’ previously.
It is almost a year since the Giroud kiss-and-tell story that he misled the club over, and Wenger was at pains to say afterwards how much the player had improved. As for Arsenal, they remain the bookmakers’ favourite for this competition, a status they have enjoyed since the blood-letting of the big names in the previous round.
An acolyte of Jose Mourinho he might be, but for Karanka there were just handshakes and deference for Wenger before and after the game. His team were naturally defensive, a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Lee Tomlin behind Kike, the Spanish striker, who saw very little of the ball. In midfield, Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter did their best to staunch the flow but the trouble with the likes of Cazorla and Mesut Ozil is that they tend never to stay anywhere for long.
Cazorla’s ball out to the left wing for Kieran Gibbs to create the first goal for Arsenal was the definitive moment of the game and it reminded Boro, if they did not know already, that they were up against a very different kind of player to those encountered in the Championship.
All 11 players had been involved in the build-up and Gibbs crossed low for Giroud to side-foot in to goal. The second, three minutes later, was even better: the window of opportunity opened for all but a fraction and in stole Arsenal. Sanchez’s eyes locked onto Giroud in the penalty area and the Frenchman made a dart to the near post. In the meantime, his marker, the left-back George Friend had stopped to point something out to a team-mate.
By the time Friend had reacted to Giroud’s run it was already too late. Sanchez’s corner was shin-high and with an out-swing on it but Giroud met it confidently on the full and guided the ball forcefully past Mejias.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to in the first half,” Karanka. “If you want to take something from games against teams like Arsenal, you have to be perfect, as we were at the Etihad. We had to take advantage of chances. If you make mistakes, it’s difficult.”
That the scoreline remained modest had much to do with Arsenal’s profligacy in front of goal because for all the hard work of Karanka’s team there were chances for more. The defender Ben Gibson, nephew of the Middlesbrough owner Steve, accidentally glanced a header towards his own goal and required a fine save from Mejias.
The Boro goalkeeper was also responsible for a save from substitute Theo Walcott, on as a late substitute. Arsenal had left a small degree of uncertainty, but Boro’s best chance arrived in injury-time when Kike hit the post with a header and by then it was far too late. They had been miles off the pace. Ozil gave his shirt to Karanka, his former coach at Real Madrid, at the end – which was all the Boro manager got out of the afternoon.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Chambers, Gabriel, Koscielny, Gibbs; Cazorla, Flamini; Welbeck (Walcott, 72), Sanchez (Rosicky, 72), Ozil; Giroud (Akpom, 82).
Substitutes not used: Mertesacker, Rosicky, Monreal, Martnez (gk), Coquelin.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Mejias; Fredericks, Adomah, Gibson, Friend; Bamford (Reach, 55), Clayton, Leadbitter, Adomah; Tomlin (Vossen, 55); Kike.
Substitutes not used: Ripley (gk), Husband, Whitehead, Nsue, Woodgate.
Booked: Arsenal Gabriel Middlesbrough Vossen
Referee: M Dean
Man of the match: Cazorla
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