Roy Hodgson was in Miami on Sunday, rather than London, but would surely have been heartened by the news from the Emirates. As Arsenal and Liverpool tore into each other for a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, the England manager was touring the training facilities of Barry University, which his squad will use in early June, when they stay in Florida for two pre-World Cup friendlies.
But even as the itinerary of England’s World Cup starts to cohere, the cast list still needs some work. Hodgson spoke last week about the breadth of his options in wide areas, about how, even in the sad absence of Theo Walcott, England have wingers who can make a difference in Brazil.
Had he been in north London Hodgson would have seen – with all due respect to Andros Townsend and Adam Johnson – his two best post-Walcott options. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling were both excellent, arguably the best players on the pitch and both suggested the possibility of international quality this summer.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was the headline man at the Emirates, scoring the first and making the second. In Arsenal’s last win – a 2-0 stroll here against Crystal Palace two weeks ago – he had scored both and, having recovered from a knee injury, there is no doubt that he has provided a spark that had been missing here in the last month or so.
Arsenal’s problem, as Arsène Wenger knows, is that most of their midfielders prefer to run towards the ball rather than away from it but with Oxlade-Chamberlain back on the right wing they can stretch teams again. From the start he was teasing Aly Cissokho, able to go outside or in, a more varied threat than Tomas Rosicky or Santi Cazorla provide.
It was from one of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s excursions infield that Arsenal took the lead. He was in the box and alert as Yaya Sanogo’s blocked shot landed at his feet, and finished coolly across Brad Jones. Oxlade-Chamberlain, a brilliant counter-attacker, nearly sent Mesut Özil through and induced a first bookable tackle from Steven Gerrard. He did so again in the second half, but referee Howard Webb, for reasons best known to himself, did not send the England captain off.
The second goal, two minutes after the break, was made by Oxlade-Cham-berlain’s traditional wing-play. Released on the right by Özil, he burst down to the byline and pulled the ball back to the lurking Lukas Podolski.
That Arsenal move started with Sterling losing the ball but that was a rare error in an excellent performance. The 19-year-old, who started the game on the left wing, terrorised Carl Jenkinson, bursting past him at will and nearly winning a first-half penalty. Arsenal know what Sterling can do after the recent 5-1 defeat, but that is not the same as being able to stop him.
Sterling moved onto the right in the second half and played the last half-hour as a relentless right-back, covering the whole flank with the athleticism and enthusiasm of two men. He continued to stretch Arsenal while putting in covering tackles near his own goal, not allowing sub-stitute Kieran Gibbs past him.
Of the two, only Sterling completed the match. Oxlade-Chamberlain was withdrawn for Gibbs with 15 minutes left, not long after his unpunished foul on Luis Suarez in the box. But his pace and width are valuable to Arsenal now, so much so that he may have played his way into facing Bayern Munich here on Wednesday night.
That will be a serious test, and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sterling will undergo more before Hodgson picks his final list. More displays like this are needed if they are to hold off the competition but for now these two must be at the front of the queue.