By Richard Clarke
Robin van Persie celebrated his first game as Arsenal captain with a crucial brace as Arsène Wenger’s side beat Plymouth 3-1 and stormed into the FA Cup Fourth Round.
The Dutchman nodded home just after the break and completed the scoring five minutes from time.
In between those goals David Gray put through his own net only for Karl Duguid to reply immediately to give the Pilgrims some hope of progression.
The scoreline may suggest an Arsenal cakewalk but it was anything but. In fact they were only truly safe when the skipper, who took the armband in place of Cesc Fabergas and Manuel Almunia, blasted home just before the final whistle.
However Arsenal’s job this afternoon was a) to avoid a giant-killing and b) get the job done first time.
They achieved both those aims and can now look forward to Sunday’s draw with interest.
Ahead of the game, Wenger had suggested he would play 90 per cent of a first-choice team. That is what happened.
Lukasz Fabianski started in goal – the manager had said the Pole is the Club’s Cup keeper this season – while Aaron Ramsey was added to the midfield. Van Persie returned up front and led the team out for the first time. As a result, Emmanuel Adebayor dropped to the bench.
Denilson was absent because of a back injury while Alex Song was suspended. Gael Clichy was rested so Mikael Silvestre moved to left back to accommodate the returning Johan Djourou.
For the record, Arsenal’s ongoing injury list reads: Kolo Toure (groin) Theo Walcott (shoulder), Cesc Fabregas (knee), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) and Eduardo (match fitness).
Third Round day is always ringed in red on the footballing calendar. That’s why Plymouth brought a vocal 9,000 fans to Emirates Stadium this afternoon despite some highly indifferent form back in the Championship.
It was a bright, cold and crisp day – perfect cup shock weather – and those thousands of visiting fans could sense weakness in the home side.
A couple of crunching early challenges by visiting captain Duguid also suggested the Pilgrims were not going to hero-worship this afternoon.
That said, Arsenal started brightly and might have taken the lead in the sixth minute when Ramsey’s miscued shot bobbled into the path of Van Persie who could not beat keeper Romain Larrieu with either of his two attempts.
Almost immediately, Jamie MacKie’s pacy goalbound volley was blocked at the other end. It drew a huge cheer from the visiting fans but the tide was already turning against them. On the quarter-hour, Eboue exchanged passes with Nasri and drew a fine save from Larrieu.
Fabianski needed assistance from his defence after Chris Clark worked his way to the left-hand side and sent a low cross to the near post. But Sagna’s cross over-stretched Larrieu and, when Arsenal worked the ball back into the area from the left, Bendtner slid a header wide.
Just before the half-hour, Arsenal’s persistent pressure won a corner. Initially it was cleared but Eboue cleverly clipped a ball to Gallas on the right of the area. The Frenchman’s shot was low, hard and heading for goal. It deflected off defender Chris Barker and nestled with Larrieu. The keeper did well to spread himself but he had still been fortunate.
Larrieu was starting to earn overtime. He beat away Bendtner’s shot just before Silvestre was replaced by Kieran Gibbs. Presumably the former Manchester United had picked up a knock but he had shown few signs before he went off.
For a time though, Arsenal were down to 10 men because, while the change was being made, Gallas disappeared down the tunnel. He emerged a few minutes later and carried on without any problems.
By now Plymouth were starting to gain a little confidence. Paul Gallagher’s dipping shot was hurriedly tipped over by Fabianski.
However before the half-time whistle, Eboue’s rolled shot and Bendtner’s diving header went wide while Ramsey had a shot blocked.
Plymouth had had their moments in the first half but, at the break, it seemed a question of when not if Arsenal would score.
However while the scores were 0-0, the visitors always had hope – and that means a lot on Third Round day.
That commodity began to evaporate within two minutes of the restart and should have been destroyed shortly afterwards. However there would be a sting in the tail.
Arsenal took the lead just after the break from a corner on the left-hand side. Nasri swung it into the area where an unmarked Van Persie stooped low to nod home. A very simple goal.
Within three minutes the lead was doubled. Eboue sent Van Persie free on the right of the area and Bendtner turned home his cross from close range. Though Plymouth defender David Gray may have got the last touch.
If he did, redemption was close at hand. In the 52nd minute, Luke Summerfield sent a free-kick into the area, it was half-cleared to Gray, who scooted around the right of area before sending a probing ball low into the area. Duguid stabbed it home from close range and celebrated enthusiastically in front of the visiting fans.
It was game on again.
However the goal only served to inhibit Arsenal. Suddenly they wanted to keep what they had. Carlos Vela came on for Eboue and took up his now familiar position on the left.
Rory Fallon did ripple the top of the net from distance late on, but a couple of minutes later, Ramsey did the same thing at the other end.
With eight minutes left, Gibbs pressured Larrieu into a weak clearance and Nasri’s long range shot was cleared off the line by Marcel Seip with the keeper stranded.
A couple of minutes later, Gibbs, who was enjoying an eye-catching cameo, fired just wide.
However a third was not far away. Nasri sent Van Persie racing through the middle. The Dutchman flicked the ball over Larrieu and crashed in his shot off the bar.
Plymouth nearly scrambled home a second in injury time but Arsenal managed to clear their lines just in time.
In fact the hosts would come closer top adding a third themselves. Nasri’s deflected shot came back off the bar and Ramsey forced a low save from Larrieu, who had been Plymouth’s Man of the Match.
The visitors applauded their fantastic support at full time and, as they trudged off, received an ovation from the home fans too.
This was one of those games when both teams could leave the field with their heads held high.
- Silvestre 30
- Eboue 69
- Bendtner 86 Goal! Yellow Card
- van Persie (C) Goal! Goal!
- Wilshere 86
- Gibbs 30
- Vela 69
- Romain Larrieu
- Marcel Seip
- Chris Clark 78
- Karl Duguid (C) Goal! Yellow Card
- Jamie Mackie
- Luke Summerfield
- Rory Fallon
- Gallagher 72
- Steven Maclean
- Lloyd Saxton 72
- Krisztian Timar
- Mathias Doumbe
- Yoann Folly
- Craig Noone 78