Arsenal made light work of Middlesbrough as two Olivier Giroud goals allowed the title holders to cruise into the FA Cup quarterfinals. Giroud scored twice in three minutes just before the half-hour mark to effectively decide a fifth round tie that had been dominated by Arsenal to that point and continued to be in their control for the remainder of the contest.
Arsene Wenger had vowed his Arsenal side wouldn’t be surprised by a Middlesbrough team that had gone to Manchester City and won 2-0 in the previous round. And he was true to his word, naming a strong lineup, including debutant Gabriel Paulista and injury doubt Alexis Sanchez, to take on the Championship leaders, who made nine changes from their midweek league win.
From the first minute, Arsenal played with an intensity that showed they were in no mood to join the long list of giant-slaying victims. There was some real eye-catching quality to the Gunners’ play, too. After a painful loss to north London rivals Tottenham, Arsenal still looked shaky in a nervy midweek victory over Premier League basement club Leicester City. But they were imperious here.
Middlesbrough appeared initially shell-shocked by the step up in class from their standard league outings and couldn’t get near Arsenal for the majority of the first half. Much of that was down to Santi Cazorla, who, lining up alongside Mathieu Flamini in midfield as part of an attacking Arsenal side, ran the show. It was no surprise that the Spaniard, continuing his run of superb form, was instrumental in his side breaking the deadlock. Cazorla’s sublime pass was inch-perfect into the run of Kieran Gibbs, who squared it first time across the edge of the six-yard box for Giroud, making his trademark near-post run, to finish low into the net.
Just a couple of minutes later, Arsenal’s lead was doubled and Middlesbrough’s fate confirmed. This time from Sanchez’s corner, again Giroud made a near-post run, and, left completely unchecked by a sleeping Middlesbrough defense, the French striker finished emphatically and stylishly on the volley.
The only surprise was that it had taken Arsenal that long to take control of the score line. Arsenal were monopolizing possession, passing and moving slickly around the lush Emirates pitch. And the visitors, going so well in the Championship under former Real Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka, were unable to get close to their opponents, Cazorla and Mesut Ozil in particular.
Cazorla’s well-struck free-kick was only just turned wide by Tomas Mejas, starting in place of regular No. 1 Dimitrios Konstantopoulos in the Middlesbrough goal, while Gibbs so nearly got on the end of one of the numerous delightful through balls supplied by the former Villarreal man. Meanwhile, Mejas was lucky to get away with palming a Giroud long-range shot into the path of Sanchez, with the Chilean unable to find the target from a tight angle.
But Giroud’s two goals would turn out to be the difference. For the first time, the deficit shook Middlesbrough into some sort of attacking life. But, although Albert Adomah had a couple of solid efforts, it wasn’t until injury time at the end of 90 minutes that they seriously tested Wojciech Szczesny, who returned to the Arsenal side in place of David Ospina. Spanish striker Kike headed against the post to leave Middlesbrough without anything to show for their efforts.
Still, they can take plenty of heart from their run to this stage of the FA Cup as well as the fact they didn’t crumble after falling two goals behind. For Arsenal, there could have been more goals. Now happy to play more on the counter attack, Theo Walcott’s finishing was lacking as he fed onto a sublime pass from fellow-substitute Tomas Rosicky, while Sanchez forced a fine save with a header. The result, though, was never in doubt.