By Rob Kelly
Arsenal continued their defence of the FA Cup with a highly-encouraging fifth-round victory against Middlesbrough on Sunday.
In an impressive performance full of energy and endeavour, the hosts dominated from the first whistle to put the Championship side under concerted pressure.
After Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud had both gone close early on, the latter opened the scoring in the 27th minute when he finished off a typically slick move.
Two minutes later, the France international had his second when he reacted first to Alexis’ quickly-taken corner to sweep in a near-post volley.
That was enough to put Arsene Wenger’s side in total control at the interval, and there was no let up in the second half as they pushed for a third goal.
The influential Mesut Ozil, Kieran Gibbs and Alexis all forced Middlesbrough goalkeeper Tomas Mejias into sharp saves in quick succession.
Cazorla fired just over at the end of a lightning-quick counter attack as the Gunners pushed on, but they could not add to the scoreline.
But this was very much a return to form as the Gunners secured their place in the quarter finals with a comprehensive performance that underlined their determination to hold on to the trophy.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having seen Middlesbrough shock Manchester City in the previous round - one in a run of six straight victories - Wenger admitted his side had been given a timely warning.
His starting XI reflected that, with Alexis - having passed a late fitness test - one of seven changes to a strong team.
The main talking point was the inclusion of Gabriel for his Arsenal debut following three unused substitute appearances since arriving from Villarreal, and the Brazilian lined up alongside Laurent Koscielny in defence.
Wojciech Szczesny - praised by Wenger for the way he has handled his battle with David Ospina for the goalkeeper’s position - was back between the sticks, while Calum Chambers and Gibbs made up the rest of the backline.
Cazorla took the armband for the first time in his Arsenal career, and was part of an attacking frontline that also included Ozil, Danny Welbeck and Giroud.
Middlesbrough, meanwhile, came into the game on the back of a fine run of form that had seen them lose just once in 19 games, stretching back to October. But with the Gunners having only been beaten once in their last 40 home games in the FA Cup, something would have to give.
Arsenal had scored in the first 20 minutes in six of their previous seven FA Cup ties, and came close to adding to that record when Cazorla’s free kick forced Mejias into a sprawling save in the opening exchanges.
It set the tone for a dominant early spell from the hosts, as they controlled possession and pinned Boro back in their own half with their slick, one-touch passing game.
Ozil was at the centre of it, his confidence levels high after a run of three goals in four, and he could be seen pirouetting around challenges, slipping in through balls and dictating the tempo during a razor-sharp start from the Gunners.
Mejias was soon called into action again to palm away Giroud’s curling effort, and a goal only seemed a matter of time.
Finally the dam broke in the 27th minute - and it was well worth the wait.
It came as the Gunners patiently passed it about on the edge of the area, before springing to life as Cazorla pierced the defence to find Gibbs to the left of the six-yard box. The England international had been a lively presence all game, and he simply took a touch before sliding it across to Giroud to slot under Mejias.
Two minutes later and the Frenchman had his second, as Alexis’ quick thinking from a corner saw him pick out the onrushing striker at the near post. The Boro defence may have switched off, but there was still plenty to do but Giroud swept it first time on the volley past the helpless Mejias.
It was a devastating passage of play as the Arsenal striker extended his FA Cup record to seven goals and four assists in just 11 games in the competition.
A measure of the home side’s total control was that Boro did not manage a shot on target until the 39th minute, with Szczesny comfortably holding on to Albert Adomah’s well-struck effort.
Wenger’s side picked up from where they had left off at the start of the second half, with Mathieu Flamini and Welbeck both going close in quick succession.
The red-and-white waves of pressure continued to build, with Ozil and Alexis combining beautifully for the former to get in a fierce drive that Mejias did well to push away.
The Middlesbrough goalkeeper was soon called into action again, this time to deny Gibbs after the left back had run on to Giroud’s lay-off on the edge of the area and let fly with a powerful shot.
Within a minute Mejias had pulled off a fine reaction save to push Alexis’ header around the post after the Chilean had risen highest to meet Cazorla’s inswinging free kick.
Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott came on for Alexis and Welbeck as the game entered its closing stages, but there was no disruption to Arsenal’s momentum as they continued to pour forward.
From one Middlesbrough corner, the hosts broke at such speed that at one stage there was a three-on-one before Cazorla fired over from the edge of the area.
Walcott went close right at the end but there were no further goals as the Gunners saw out the game to seal their place in the hat for Monday’s quarter-final draw.
Referee: Mike Dean
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