Theo Walcott came off the bench to score a late deflected winner as Arsenal beat Brighton 3-2 in an entertaining 4th Round FA Cup clash down on the south coast. Olivier Giroud bagged two great goals either side of half-time to twice give the Gunners the lead only for Ashley Barnes and Leonardo Ulloa to peg back the visitors. Walcott finally broke the hearts of the home fans inside the last five minutes when his cushioned volley found the back of the net from a Wilshere corner.
It was a much changed team that stepped out at the Amex Arena with Arsene Wenger opting to rest several big names. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs and Santi Cazorla dropped to the bench, while Thomas Vermaelen stayed in London nursing an ankle problem. Per Mertesacker was given the armband, with Andre Santos, Carl Jenkinson and Laurent Koscielny joining him in defence. Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby took over positions in front of Aaron Ramsey in the midfield while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right side of attack.
After a ridiculously quiet opening 14 minutes, during which both sides probed with tidy passing but didn’t have any attempts on goal, the game exploded into life.
Arsenal’s defence failed to play the offside trap and Brighton’s Ashley Barnes followed a headed ball over his shoulder to volley goalwards. He was only six-yards out and looked destined to score but somehow Szczesny sprung to his right to tip the slightly scuffed effort around the post.
It was top quality goalkeeping, made all the better by the fact our number one immediately launched an attack after nullifying the threat from the resulting corner. Having picked out the energetic Rosicky, the Czech drove forward to the edge of the Brighton box before feeding Podolski. The German in turn flicked the ball in a pirouette movement to Giroud who teed himself up and then curled a beauty into the top corner. A fine finish indeed. 1-0.
The game fell into something of a lull again as the half hour mark approached before Andre Santos underlined why he’s fallen behind Kieran Gibbs in the left-back pecking order. After winning the ball on the corner of our box the Brazilian attempted to dribble his way out of defence only to get caught. Brighton whipped a ball into the box immediately and although Szczesny got a hand to it, debutant Ulloa tapped home from a yard. Thankfully the offside flag went up to deny the home side an equaliser.
The reprieve only lasted three minutes. A short corner, quickly arrowed into the middle of the six-yard box at shoulder height, should have been attacked by Szczesny but despite moving to punch the ball he was beaten to it by Barnes who bulleted home a header from two yards out. We had seven men standing stationary when the ball was delivered, the biggest culprit Giroud who willingly allowed the ball to fly over his head, as our zonal marking strategy again fell to pieces. 1-1.
Jenkinson and Chamberlain whipped a couple of nice balls into the box from the right touchline, neither of which were attacked, Santos hit an horrific effort way over the bar and Rosicky scuffed one wide in first half injury-time. Aside from that zilch was produced going forward.
As has been the trend in recent weeks we started the second half with a little more zip. On 50 minutes Chamberlain fired a drive which was well blocked after good running by both Diaby and Rosicky, then the England winger drew a foul on the edge of the box with more sprightly play.
Without Walcott on the pitch to scuff the ball into the wall, Lukas Podolski took charge and curled an absolutely wonderful shot goalwards. It looked in, but hammered off the bar before being cleared.
Our dominance soon paid handsome dividends. On 56 minutes Podolski slipped the ball to Diaby who lofted a Song-esque ball over the defence. Giroud took the ball down brilliantly and as the keeper came out he slid to crash home. It was a top quality bit of finishing and the sign of a striker in real form. He enjoyed it too, getting a booking for over zealously celebrating with the 4,500 travelling Gooners.
We looked dangerous going forward and the Frenchman nearly had his hattrick five minutes later as he latched onto another ball over the top, however, on this occasion his shot was parried clear by keeper Casper Ankergren.
Naturally, Arsenal being Arsenal, despite having Brighton on the ropes we left ourselves open to a sucker punch. With the game increasingly stretched Brighton poured forward down the right whipped in a lovely ball and Argentine debutant Ulloa headed home from close range. Per Mertesacker’s attempt at marking was horrible and Szczesny looked disgusted.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky made way for Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott on 68 minutes as Arsene Wenger pushed for the win.
Giroud had two decent chances to get his hattrick, first hitting a freekick over the bar on 73 minutes then bouncing a volley over ten minutes later after fine work by Podolski. In between Santos was hauled off in favour of Gibbs after he’d fired another wretched shot over the bar. The new left-back soon set-up Giroud whose one man mission to finish the game saw him attempt an overhead kick which brought about a corner.
Wilshere took it and when the ball was headed out to the edge of the area Walcott cushioned a volley goalwards which, with the aid of a deflection, found it’s way into the back of the net. It was just reward after a prolonged period of pressure.
As the game edged towards full-time Walcott nearly bagged his second following some tenacious work, Podolski was denied from point blank range before Brighton’s Craig Mackail-Smith (who looks like he belongs in a Reef tribute band) fell to the ground claiming a penalty after contact from Jenkinson.
Four minutes of injury-time were not fun on the nerves but we managed not to self destruct a third time thereby saving ourselves from another pesky replay. We’re into the 5th Round and a trip to Wembley is that bit nearer. Good stuff.