One image was irresistible during the dog days of the second half as this FA Cup fourth-round tie spun towards its inevitable conclusion. It was of Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager, approaching his counterpart, Arsène Wenger, in some smoke-filled room in Highbury's halls (conspiratorial gatherings are the preserve of such a haze) and saying "OK, Arsène. If you let us win in the League Cup, we'll give you the FA Cup". No one knows Wenger's response, of course, as it never happened. But what is inescapable is that McClaren would surely stomach this predictable exit if he could guarantee survival when they meet again on Wednesday for the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final and with it passage to the Millennium Stadium next month.
Such nefarious thoughts are a disservice to the commitment showed - over-commitment in the case of George Boateng who was dismissed for a rash, late lunge at the impressive Ray Parlour - by both sides in the third of their four meetings inside a month, for which Arsenal now hold a two to one advantage. It is also a disservice to a memorable first goal by the precocious David Bentley, a late substitute whose exquisite, gifted chip over 6ft 5in Mark Schwarzer from 20 yards ensured a repeat of the scoreline when the sides met here in the League two Saturdays ago. "You cannot say he lacks confidence," grinned Wenger of the young talent he has likened to, and who may quickly replace, Dennis Bergkamp. The victory prolongs Wenger's self-confessed love affair with the FA Cup. Given that he is now unbeaten in 16 ties and is attempting a hat-trick of competition wins, the relationship is becoming a monogamous one.
Afterwards McClaren confirmed where his priorities lay - especially as he lacked his three first-choice centre-halves and could, legitimately, blame three of the goals on defensive calamities. "We have to look at the bigger picture, as Arsenal have been doing," he said in reference to his decision to also rest Juninho with seven games in 21 days. "It's disappointing but it is all about Wednesday now." He will pray that, Ugo Ehiogu at least, will make it.
Wenger, meanwhile, retained just three from the midweek defeat although, with Thierry Henry not back from holiday until today and injuries abounding, he had to formulate an alternative attacking approach. "It was a risk," Wenger admitted. The fear was his side would lack a cutting edge - in reality their movement and interplay shredded the visitors as Fredrik Ljungberg was pushed forward to partner Bergkamp and, behind them, Robert Pires was given licence. The decision received early vindication with both "strikers" scoring in an entertaining, combative first half. It was Parlour who chased down Edu's punt after 19 minutes. His determination embarrassed Stuart Parnaby and as the cross came in Ljungberg's presence spread panic. The ball ran to Bergkamp whose side-footed shot looped off Chris Riggott and into the net.
Middlesbrough, in contrast, relied on the bludgeon. Retreating into their own half, their response was to move the ball forward quickly to Michael Ricketts. Surprisingly it paid off. Franck Queudrue's deep free-kick was headed across by the striker and Joseph-Desiré Job rolled his body to thump the ball high inside the near post. Arsenal shot back. Ashley Cole's curling shot was turned away and Pires tumbled into the area. No penalty. Not to be denied, Sol Campbell headed back a Bergkamp free-kick and, after Vieira's intervention, Ljungberg was allowed to transfer the ball on to his left foot and shoot underneath Schwarzer. McClaren demanded spiky aggression - punctuated by a series of bookings, although Danny Mills' ability to irritate led to an irrational push from Jens Lehmann for which the goalkeeper was fortunate to escape.
Into the second half Pires and Ljungberg again fell flamboyantly before the sparring suddenly stopped. A Pires corner was headed by Ljungberg and although Gaizka Mendieta hooked it out, the ball had already crossed the line. Given Ljungberg's modest stature, and the fact that he met the ball from inside the six-yard area with both feet on the ground, it was a poor goal to concede. Wenger introduced Bentley who quickly furnished the pick of the goals.
The attention now switches to the Carling Cup. Hopefully, Middlesbrough's self-belief will not have been overly damaged. For Arsenal, Bentley will start as will Vieira - suspended for the next Premiership game. "I may have a poll to see who else will travel," said Wenger with customary wickedness, bolstered by his team's excellence. The truth is, as McClaren knows, Arsenal have the ability to toy with their opponents. The hope for Middlesbrough lies in the crushing fact that the next contest, for Arsenal, isn't worth unduly bothering with - although they may snag it all the same.
Bergkamp 19, Ljungberg 28, 68, Bentley 90
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 37,256