By Richard Clarke
Cesc Fabregas trebled his goal tally for the season as Arsenal prepared for Old Trafford in fine style with a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough on Sunday.
The Spaniard had just one strike to his name before Gareth Southgate’s side arrived at Emirates Stadium this afternoon.
However Fabregas plundered goals from Andrey Arshavin’s cut-back in the 26th minute and Emmanuel Eboue’s incisive ball midway through the second half to give his side a straightforward victory against a relegation-haunted side.
The latter effort ended both the game as a contest and the Arsenal captain’s participation this afternoon.
Before the game could kick-off again, Wenger withdrew Fabregas and Theo Walcott. It was clearly a move made with Wednesday’s Champions League Semi-Final first leg at Manchester United in mind.
This result means Arsenal are a racing certainty to be involved next term, at least in the qualifying round. The gap to fifth-place Villa is now 10 points with only 12 left available this season.On current form, you’d expect them to make mathematically certain next weekend at Portsmouth.
Wenger’s men have now not lost in the Premier League for 20 games, more than half a season, and they have not conceded a goal at home in their two main competitions since December 21.
This was simple, straightforward and hardly taxing - the perfect prelude to a massive week.
Emirates Stadium was bathed in brilliant sunshine for this lunchtime kick-off. Marvellous May weather is so often the backdrop for crucial matches in the season – and this would be another of those occasions.
Fourth place now seemed pretty certain for Arsenal after Aston Villa’s draw and Everton’s defeat on Saturday. However Wenger wanted third and Chelsea’s win at West Ham had put the Stamford Bridge side nine points ahead in the Premier League table. This was Arsenal’s only game in hand - a win was pretty much essential.
The manager’s team selection smacked of considered rotation. Certainly there were no obvious ‘rests’ ahead of the Champions League Semi-Final first leg on Wednesday.
Wenger brought in Manuel Almunia, Eboue and, for his 100th game, Walcott; pushing Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna and Alex Song down to the bench. Of course, Middlesbrough had ample incentive themselves. A win would take them out of the relegation zone and, like Arsenal, they had Manchester United next up.
They could not afford to be overawed by anyone at the moment. And, in fairness, they weren’t.
In the opening seconds Tuncay skipped through on the right only for the backtracking Samir Nasri to steal the ball from him on the edge of the area.
After that though, Arsenal took over. In the eighth minute Denilson slid a pass into the path of Walcott in the right-hand channel. However Robert Huth roared back and timed his block to perfection. Eboue nodded over from the corner.
Around the quarter-hour, Kieran Gibbs and Arshavin both tried to bundle their way through a crowded area. Each time their eventual shot was blocked.
At the start of this season, you would have been pleased enough Arsenal’s opening but, at the same time, you would be harbouring some concerns that they could be caught out. However in recent months Wenger’s men are worthy of much more confidence and the opening goal this afternoon was typical of their current brio.
In the 26th minute, Nicklas Bendtner’s clever back-flick diverted the ball to Fabregas in the centre circle. His raking pass sent Arshavin scuttling clear on the left. The Russian reached the area and bided his time for his captain to catch up. Once he had, the 27-year-old laid on the perfect pass for the sliding Spaniard to rifle home.
It was only the second goal of the season for Fabregas. The other had denied another North-East side, Sunderland, the full three points in the final seconds at The Stadium of Light back on October 4.
Arsenal’s tails was now up – and there are few more beautiful sights in football than Wenger’s side with a lead on the scoreboard and confidence flowing in their veins.
Just past the half-hour, Walcott fired across the face of the area and inches wide of the far post. Then Arshavin appeared on the right and cut the ball back for Toure who took a centre back’s slash at it and the opportunity went begging.
Before that Middlesbrough had a creditable claim for a penalty when Stewart Downing’s corner appeared to hit the arm of Bendtner.
Up until the 43rd minute, the visitors had not created a single chance – on or off target. But they would put that right in fine fashion. Downing let fly from outside the area and Almunia had to dive full-length to prevent his low effort creeping inside the near post.
Arsenal were also indebted to their Spanish keeper five minutes after the restart. Defensive dalliance allowed Jeremie Aliadiere to go through one-on-one but Almunia spread himself widely and the ball bounced off his legs.
Perhaps Arsenal were unsettled by a change at half time. Mikael Silvestre did not appear after the interval and Johan Djourou came on for his first appearance after being carried off at Wigan on April 11 with a knee problem.
Normal service seemed to be resumed almost immediately when Walcott fired low towards goal from an acute angle. Brad Jones clutched the ball on the line.
Arsenal soon resumed control once more with Arshavin at the heart of almost everything they did.
In the 67th minute, Fabregas latched on to a long, low pass forward from Eboue, skipped past Jones and rolled home his second.
It would be the captain’s final touch. Emmanuel Adebayor and Abou Diaby were waiting by the touchline when the goal was scored. Before the kick-off they came on for Fabregas and Walcott. Now that WAS a move made with Wednesday in mind.
Boro had played the second half like a cup tie. In the circumstances it was all they could do but it had been nowhere near enough.
Nasri and Bendtner both forced the best from Jones as Arsenal cruised home.
On this performance Middlesbrough fans have to be pessimistic about their chances of avoiding the drop.
Arsenal, however, are looking upwards in more ways than one.
Roll on Wednesday.
- Silvestre 46
- Fabregas (C) 68 Goal! Goal!
- Walcott 68
- Adebayor 68
- Djourou 46
- Diaby 68
- McMahon 72
- Aliadiere 87
- Downing (C)
- King 62
- Digard 72
- Emnes 87
- Johnson 62