In a season which has been littered with cup giantkillings, this was a fixture marked out by some as another possible upset. But, in the end, it was a surprisingly comfortable afternoon against a Boro side who knocked out Manchester City in the previous round but who never for a minute looked like repeating the act in the last 16.
French striker Olivier Giroud was the inspiration, scoring two goals in two first-half minutes to win the tie, and it may prove an important result for Arsenal in Premier League terms, too, helping to regain momentum after a recent defeat at Spurs and a rather nervy win against Leicester a few days later, which suggested there was another ‘wobble’ in store for Arsene Wenger’s men.
Instead, Arsenal ended the day with plenty of positives — not least the form of Giroud, whose goals were both superbly taken, another good display from Mesut Ozil and a solid debut for new signing Gabriel at centre-back. The team’s increasing solidity at home — they will certainly hope for a home draw in this evening’s quarter-final pairings — is a welcome fillip too, especially when you consider Liverpool and Chelsea are yet visit the Emirates. In fact their nine home wins in a row have been achieved with only two goals conceded since Manchester United won here last November, perhaps a sign that defensive frailties are a thing of the past.
Wenger said: “It’s very important to be strong at home because we have some big rivals — Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton — still to come to the Emirates. We controlled the game from the first minute to the last. I’m pleased with the way we attacked and the way we defended. We have a week now to prepare for Crystal Palace in the League and everybody is very focused.”
Winning the FA Cup last season has been crucial to Arsenal’s development and they started this game with a determination to defend it. With Wenger having chosen an extremely attacking line-up — Sanchez, Giroud, Cazorla, Ozil and Welbeck all included — they created a flurry of early chances. Giroud had already seen two efforts go close by the time he opened the scoring in the 27th minute, finishing off a quite wonderful move that ended with an incisive pass out to the left by Cazorla, a cut-back from over-lapping Gibbs and a clean finish from Arsenal’s French striker. The striker clearly had a taste for it, because two minutes later he produced an even better finish, making a diagonal run to the far post from a Sanchez corner and then sweetly volleying into the net first time.
“He was excellent,” said Wenger. “I believe Giroud is a different player to the guy who first arrived here. He understands what the top level of football demands, he works with great concentration in training and has improved tremendously on mobility and technical quality. His body is very strong too and he uses it very well.”
Giroud’s goals were no more than Arsenal deserved for a dominant first half performance in which Middlesbrough, fighting for promotion in the Championship and still on a high from that victory at City in the last round, barely managed an attack on goal. Wenger handed a debut to new signing Gabriel at centre-back, and it was a comfortable introduction; at least until he cynically blocked a rampaging Adam Reach in the second half and took a booking for his troubles. Ozil almost extended Arsenal’s lead with a shot that was well saved, as did Gibbs, before Boro keeper Tomas Meijas made a quite remarkable stop to keep out a Sanchez header from a clever Cazorla free-kick that looked destined for the bottom corner.
Middlesbrough only woke up in the last half hour when they put two up front, but by that time Arsenal were in cruise mode and showing no signs of making the kind of defensive mistakes which have cost them in the past.
“I’m a bit disappointed because everybody was expecting another game like we played against Liverpool or Man City. But we didn’t go the pitch in the way we usually go,” said Boro manager Aitor Karanka.
The truth was, however, that Arsenal were simply too good on the day; and you suspect Fortress Emirates, which next hosts Monaco in the Champions League in 10 days time, could yet have a say in how several competitions pan out this season.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 6, Chambers 6, Gabriel 6, Koscielny 7, Gibbs 7, Flamini 6, Cazorla 7, Welbeck 7 (Walcott 72; 6), Ozil 7, Sanchez 8 (Rosicky 72), Giroud 8 (Akpom 82).
MIDDLESBROUGH: Mejias 8, Fredericks 6, Omeruo 6, Gibson 7, Friend 6, Leadbitter 5, Clayton 5, Adomah 5, Tomlin 5 (Vossen 54; 7), Kike 6, Bamford 5 (Reach 54; 7).
Referee: Mike Dean.