By Nik Brumsack at KC Stadium
Arsenal all but secured Champions League football for the 18th consecutive season with a 3-1 victory at Hull City on Monday evening.
In a captivating first half, Alexis’ brace - the second of which brought up Arsenal’s 100th goal of the season - sandwiched Aaron Ramsey’s deflected shot to put the visitors in complete control at the break.
Stephen Quinn did pull one back after the restart but the Gunners continued to make the better chances and the final score would have had a more comprehensive look to it at full-time were it not for the heroics of Steve Harper and some profligate finishing.
There were plenty of positives - Alexis' scintillating performance being one, Jack Wilshere's return to first-team action another. In truth Arsenal impressed collectively as well as individually, creating chances throughout in what was for large periods a fluid and incisive attacking display.
It all means that Arsène Wenger's men move back up to third in the table, level on points with second-placed Manchester City and with a game in hand on last season’s champions. Arsenal will definitely secure a top-four place so long as they take a point from their remaining four games. On the evidence of this showing, that will happen sooner rather than later.
SETTING THE SCENE
Last weekend’s goalless draw against Chelsea may have brought Arsenal’s nine-match winning run to an end, but the point at Emirates Stadium enabled the Gunners to extend their unbeaten run into double figures.
With that in mind, it came as no surprise to see Wenger select the same team that had offered an encouraging performance against the newly-crowned champions.
Laurent Koscielny, impressive in that game, was handed a 200th Arsenal appearance in central defence, where he again partnered captain Per Mertesacker.
Meanwhile Mesut Ozil started in the No 10 position, fresh from winning the club’s Vitality Player of the Month award for the second successive month.
In fact the only changes to the squad from the Chelsea match were enforced. Mathieu Debuchy and Danny Welbeck missed out through hamstring and knee injuries respectively, and were replaced on the bench by Gabriel and Tomas Rosicky.
While Arsenal’s form has generally been exemplary throughout 2015, Hull have found a winning formula at a crucial time.
Steve Bruce’s side had taken just nine points from 12 Premier League matches since New Year’s Day, but back-to-back victories over Crystal Palace and Liverpool at the end of April ensured they came into this game just outside the relegation zone.
Arsenal’s start was purposeful but it took 10 minutes for them to work the first sight of goal. When it came, Tom Huddlestone was relieved to see his speculative flicked clearance from Hector Bellerin’s cross fly into the arms of Steve Harper.
The goalkeeper was given an altogether tougher task soon after, springing low to his right to parry Alexis’ fierce shot away after the Chilean had combined superbly with Ozil.
While Arsenal were enjoying the majority of possession, the hosts posed a threat in wide areas. They should have taken the lead midway through the half when Sone Aluko arrived unmarked six yards from goal, but after meeting Robbie Brady’s centre, the striker inexplicably attempted to nod the ball towards Dame N’Doye.
Aluko was made to rue that miss soon after. Ozil robbed Huddlestone midway inside the Hull half, allowing Alexis to run at the Hull defence. He was tripped by Jake Livermore but got to his feet to curl the resulting 20-yard free-kick into the roof of the net, via a deflection.
The goal gave Arsenal a shot of momentum and they doubled their lead soon after. Santi Cazorla received the ball just inside his own half and, like an NFL quarterback, lasered a long-range pass straight to the onrushing Ramsey. The midfielder worked a yard of space inside the area and saw his eventual shot take a touch off Brady before nestling in the far corner.
In an open end to the half, N’Doye, Ozil and Alexis all saw good opportunities go to waste before the Chilean added his second in stoppage time.
Ozil and Ramsey - both at the centre of much of Arsenal’s purposeful play - were again heavily involved. The former won possession in midfield before finding Ramsey, whose inch-perfect pass allowed Alexis to round Harper and roll the ball into the empty net for Arsenal’s third of the evening and 100th of the season.
After a first half during which Hull’s open approach had enabled Arsenal to profit on the counter, it made sense to see Bruce’s team began the second period in more disciplined fashion.
The visitors initially continued to make the better opportunities however, and after playing a one-two with Cazorla, Ramsey’s potshot flew just wide of the post.
Seconds later, Hull were back in with a shout. David Meyler’s forceful challenge on Koscielny left the defender sprawled on the turf. The ball was worked to Ahmed Elmohamady on the right flank and the winger took full advantage of Koscielny’s absence, whipping in an inviting cross for Stephen Quinn to powerfully head past David Ospina.
Arsène Wenger had spoken of Elmohamady’s threat in his pre-match press conference. After a quiet first half, the winger had began to take hold on proceedings and should have been rewarded with a second assist on the hour. His right-wing cross had plenty of pace but, having strode forward from the back, Paul McShane could only nod it over the bar when well placed.
Hull sensed a comeback, Arsenal sensed a breakaway goal. The home defence had struggled to contain Alexis and, after meeting Ozil’s exquisite flick, the forward was only denied a first Gunners hat-trick by Harper, who saved well twice in quick succession.
Wilshere was introduced for a first appearance since November 22 as Arsenal finished the stronger. The substitute’s cameo was certainly a bright one - his introduction gave the visitors a burst of energy as Hull began to tire towards the end.
Bellerin, Cazorla and Wilshere himself almost took advantage but were denied by a mixture of Harper and James Chester’s arm. In the end it didn’t matter - Arsenal had done more than enough.
Referee: Lee Mason
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