Arsenal’s 3-2 victory at Championship side Brighton, despite featuring an unnecessarily nervy finale, means they are the only team in the top six in the Premier League definitely through to the fifth round, and enjoying a momentum not experienced for quite some time in north London.
Coming on the back of a memorable, breakthrough victory at Manchester City, it is a significant moment in Arsenal’s season, not least because both Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil — both of whom are on the way back from long-term injury — were on the scoresheet and contributed greatly to another pulsating cup tie.
A wonderful goal from Tomas Rosicky added to the feelgood factor and helped overshadow a spirited fightback from Brighton that saw them score twice in the second half, through Chris O’Grady and Sam Baldock, to give a one-sided cup match the prospect of a dramatic finale.
That didn’t concern Wenger, however, whose side survived to fight another day — unlike Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton and Tottenham, who all lost on Saturday after Manchester United had been held to a draw by Cambridge on Friday night.
Wenger said: “Are we favourites now? Of course we fight and want to retain our cup, but there’s too long to go to say that. I think Manchester United might go through — so we will be amongst them. But you cannot predict who will win it. With yesterday’s results you have to be cautious — the Chelsea result I couldn’t believe it; I had to check twice!”
Even so, barring being drawn against United this afternoon, there doesn’t look to be too much left in the FA Cup to make Arsenal think they cannot lift it for a second year in a row — and Wenger was rightly happy with his team’s overall performance at the Amex as he looks ahead to Sunday’s Premier League clash against Aston Villa.
“I believe our performance was good. There was room to score more goals with the chances we created,” he said. “They had two shots on target and overall, for me, it was the performance I expected.
“We have a good momentum now, but let’s keep the urgency level very high. We know how quickly momentum can die. We have come from far this season but we want to finish well.”
Ironically, starting well rather than finishing well was the reason Arsenal edged past Brighton. It took them only two minutes to take the lead, Walcott taking a wonderful touch to control Calum Chambers’ low cross before firing an angled effort past David Stockdale; and by the 24th minute, the visitors were 2-0 up, this time Ozil stopping still on a cute central pass from Rosicky before calmly shooting home left-footed.
The names on the scoresheet were as significant as the scoreline. Ozil was making his first start since October on his return from long-term injury, while Walcott scored for the first time since injuring knee ligaments against Tottenham in January 2014.
It wasn’t until the 50th minute that the first moment of panic arrived for Arsenal when they failed to clear their lines and instead allowed O’Grady to turn inside the area and fire home a 50th minute reply.
Even then, a wonderfully-worked effort from Rosicky followed swiftly and should have settled things. He clipped a clever reverse pass to Giroud and volleyed home the Frenchman’s deliciously-floated return for 3-1.
But Brighton, who only really came to life after the break, still had a sting in the tail thanks to Arsenal’s jittery defence that featured Nacho Monreal at centre-back. They made it 3-2 when Baldock was allowed to break free in the centre of the penalty area, and the striker finished smartly past Wojciech Szczesny with 25 minutes to go. Suddenly a Bradford-style comeback seemed feasible.
Brighton may well had achieved that aim had a late penalty shout — when a shot was cannoned off Chambers’ arm — been awarded; but it wasn’t, and Arsenal survived.
“We ran them close and I thought we were very good and spirited in the second half but we started the game too slow, and you can’t do that against Arsenal,” said Brighton’s Irish manager Chris Hughton.
“Arsenal will be one of the favourites now, I would expect them to be right there. But it’s been a wonderful weekend for the FA Cup.”
BRIGHTON: Stockdale 7, Bruno 6 (March 62; 6), Greer 6, Dunk 6, Bennett 6; Holla 6, Ince 7, Calderon 6, Forster-Caskey 6 (Colunga 81), Baldock 6, O’Grady 7.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 6, Chambers 7, Koscielny 7, Monreal 5, Gibbs 6, Flamini 6, Walcott 7 (Sanchez 69; 6), Ramsey 6, Ozil 7 (Coquelin 79), Rosicky 8, Giroud 8 (Akpom 69; 6)
Referee: Michael Oliver.