If there was some substance in Steve McClaren's testy assertion that the good work Middlesbrough put in for 45 minutes was cancelled out by careless defending, the outcome of their third encounter with Arsenal in two weeks proved to be another humbling experience. Last Tuesday's narrow victory at Highbury in the Carling Cup encouraged Middlesbrough to believe that they can progress to the final when the two teams meet again on Wednesday but this was a different story.
Along with survival in the Premiership, a visit to the Millennium Stadium next month is one of Middlesbrough's priorities. For Arsenal it is a chance to exercise second-stringers and bring forward emerging talent. Paying the FA Cup more respect, fielding a team short only of its incomparable striker Thierry Henry, the holders added to the woes they have inflicted on Middlesbrough this season, adding four goals to the eight put past them in the Premiership. Thus Arsène Wenger's glowing tribute to his team contrasted with McClaren's curt responses. "I felt that our passing and movement was outstanding," the Arsenal manager said.
Without both regular centre-backs, Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, and choosing to hold back Juninho and Massimo Maccarone for this week's encounter, Middlesbrough never gave up the fight, playing throughout with commendable passion, but the gulf in class was always evident. "It's disappointing," McClaren said, "but it is all about Wednesday now."
Wenger made his intentions clear when announcing that the teenager David Bentley will play at the Riverside after coming on late on Saturday to score his first senior goal with an adroit chip that could not have been bettered by his idol Dennis Bergkamp. But since Patrick Vieira is sure to play before missing next Saturday's League game against Manchester City due to suspension, Middlesbrough should not hold their breath.
Since returning from injury Vieira has hit his best form and was outstanding in midfield, devouring the ground, constantly in driving support of attacks. In the absence of Henry, who returned yesterday from a holiday, Nwankwo Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, the choice of Fredrik Ljungberg in a central striking role was, as Wenger said, "a bit of a risk". Clever rotation eliminated it, leaving the worrying task of trying to cope with the interchanging of Ljungberg and Bergkamp and Robert Pires's intelligent, fleet-footed roving.
After five games out through injury, Bergkamp was quickly into his stride, twice threatening to open up Boro's patched-up defence before putting Arsenal ahead in the 19th minute, the goal coming from the sort of defensive lapse McClaren would growl about. There was no immediate threat when Ray Parlour energetically chased down Edu's speculative forward punt wide on Middlesbrough's left flank, close to the corner, but Stuart Parnaby allowed Parlour to steal the ball before sending it low in the penalty area. Ljungberg was immediately a disturbing presence and Bergkamp took advantage, sending in a shot that looped into the net off Chris Riggott's outstretched leg.
Boro's response brought a stunning goal. Continuing a policy of getting the ball quickly forward to Michael Ricketts and Joseph-Desiré Job, they forced a free-kick that Franck Queudrue sent deep to the far side of Arsenal's goal. Ricketts' header dropped for Job to cut across Kolo Touré and score with a rasping shot.
A combative response to Arsenal's surges kept Boro in the game until they conceded parity with another avoidable goal. After 28 minutes, Sol Campbell headed on a Bergkamp free-kick, Vieira got a touch and Ljungberg was given time to change feet and score with a low shot.
The irritating ease with which Pires goes to ground caused a fraying of tempers that would lead to George Boateng's dismissal for two yellow cards, the first foolishly for dissent, the second for a wild lunge at Parlour.
By the time of his departure in the 86th minute, Arsenal were comfortably through to the next round, their third goal an entry of a different sort on Middlesbrough's crime sheet. "How did you let it happen?" must have been one of McClaren's post-match complaints in the dressing-room. How indeed? A Pires corner, Ljungberg unmarked on the six-yard line. Gaizka Mendieta hooked Ljungberg's header clear, but the ball had already crossed the line.
Opportunities for young players have been rare at Arsenal in past seasons, but times may be changing as Wenger begins to think long-term. With six minutes left, he introduced Bentley who conjured up the goal of the game. "I see his future as a support striker," Wenger said, adding with a smile, "I think we can say that he isn't short of confidence." After this drubbing, confidence will not come easily for Middlesbrough this week.
Goals: Bergkamp (19) 1-0; Job (23) 1-1; Ljungberg (28) 2-1; Ljungberg (68) 3-1; Bentley (90) 4-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, Cole, Parlour, Vieira (Clichy, 75), Edu, Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp (Bentley, 84). Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Keown, Owusu-Abeyie.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Mills, Riggott, Parnaby, Queudrue, Mendieta, Boateng, Zenden, Downing (Juninho, 73), Job (Maccarone, 73), Ricketts (Nemeth, 73). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Davies.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Bookings: Middlesbrough: Zenden, Riggott, Parnaby, Boateng. Sending off: Boateng.
Man of the match: Vieira.
Attendance: 37,256.Reuse content