Arsenal eased into the 5th Round of the FA Cup with a comfortable 4-0 victory against Coventry City at the Emirates Stadium last night. Two goals in the first half from Lukas Podolski and two more from substitutes Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla wrapped up the encounter, with Arsene Wenger making several changes to his side, featuring Lukas Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nicklas Bendtner.
The home side controlled the game from the off with the majority of the first period played in the Coventry half. Our attacking intent was obvious from as early as the third minute as Jack Wilshere sliced a shot wide from the edge of the area. Podolski fired over a good cross from Jenkinson on the right from close range and Oxlade-Chamberlain also struck over from outside the area, before Arsenal’s early dominance told and we went ahead in the 15th minute.
Per Mertesacker won the ball near the halfway line allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain to drive forward. Mesut Ozil took over possession and provided a delightful through ball into the path of Podolski, who took a touch to round the Coventry goalkeeper Joe Murphy before coolly converting it into an empty net.
Although Coventry was set up to defend deep, they did show signs of willingness to come forward and attack. Captain Carl Baker went on a riveting run from his own half, cut away from Mertesacker and got his shot away forcing a decent save from Fabianksi with the visitors best chance of the first half.
Serge Gnabry saw an effort go over the bar after cutting in from the right hand channel, before Podolski doubled our advantage in the 27th minute, from a set-piece move that featured three of our German starters. Gnabry provided the corner from the left, Mertesacker flicked it on at the near post and Podolski was on hand at the back to head it home from close range.
It was a move straight from the training ground and one that I’ve seen us attempt in almost every game this season, so it was great to see it pay off and at 2-0 we had the game well and truly in our grasp.
A Bendtner air-shot set up a tame Gnabry effort after some neat build up play, before attention was diverted away from the match after the half hour mark as the Coventry fans protested against the distance they travel for their home games, considerately applauded and supported by the Arsenal faithful.
The game continued and a fizzing Gibbs cross from the left was volleyed high and wide by Gnabry at the far post, before Wilshere clipped through Bendtner who tucked it inside for Jenkinson, but the young Englishman seemed caught in two minds and his shot-come-cross came to no avail.
Jenkinson almost made amends when he charged down the right and crossed for Podolski, who fired over with his weaker foot from a good position inside the Coventry area. Wilshere rolled the ball wide right on half time after it fell back to him trying to play in Bendtner, and we went into the break looking extremely comfortable and 2-0 up.
Coventry came out in the second half a different side and Leon Clarke beat the offside trap to charge in on goal in the 50th minute, but slightly over ran it and in the end his shot was well saved by Fabianksi.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then got brushed off the ball deep in our half allowing Moussa to square it for Clarke again, who this time saw a side-footed effort from 18 yards deflect wide off the post.
Arsenal were slow to get going in the second period but began to click after the hour mark. A neat one-two between Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain released the former towards goal. His ball to Ozil then came back to Wilshere again, who then found Bendtner inside the area but the returning Dane could only fire wide after trying to find space for himself inside the area.
Chances were coming thick and fast at both ends now as legs started to tire and the game opened up. Billy Daniels struck one over for Coventry before Podolski was played in by Wilshere, but he attempted to square one back across goal instead of taking on the opportunity to grab his hat trick.
Blair Adams then wasted a good opportunity for the visitors following a break forward, before Wenger made two changes just after the 70 minute mark; Cazorla replacing Bendtner and 16-year-old Gedion Zelalem made his senior debut and became the first player in Arsenal history to play for the first team having been born after Wenger became Manager when he replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Giroud then replaced Podolski and it was the Frenchman who made sure of the encounter in the 84th minute, when he converted Gibbs’ cross from close range after Coventry failed to clear the ball across goal.
Cazorla volleyed a deflected Jenkinson cross just over the bar before he then scored a fourth, blasting home after Murphy parried Jenkinson’s shot from the right following some great build up play involving Cazorla, Wilshere and Zelalem.
Into stoppage time and Clarke wasted a great chance after a good Coventry break and Ozil passed the ball onto the post after intercepting the ball near the Coventry area, before referee Robert Madley brought the tie to an end with the home side the deserving winners.
Although the visitors rallied and came out fighting in the second half forcing a few nervy moments as we dropped off and allowed them to put pressure on us, we were largely in control of the tie from very early on and deserving winners on the night, ruthlessly putting four past them in the process.
It was the sort of tie in which an early goal was necessary in order to calm any nerves present after we were knocked out of both domestic Cup competitions last year by lower League sides, and we had Podolski to thank for the two first half goals that put the game beyond Coventry.
He’s a player much talked about in the Arsenal world for a variety of reasons. Off the pitch, his attitude and warmth is such that it has turned him into something of a cult legend, but his on field performances have never quite reflected that same feeling.
That’s not to suggest he’s been a flop, not by any stretch. His contribution last season of 16 goals and 11 assists already puts that argument to the sword, but there have been doubts about his ability to work in our system and his game time this season, when fit, has been limited due to the Manager’s preference to go with Ozil, Cazorla or even Wilshere in that wide left role.
But it’s easy to look at this situation and think that Podolski might be into his last 6 months at the Club. Wenger’s reluctance to use him, especially as a second striker, and the Club’s continued interest in young Julian Draxler who has been predominantly deployed as a left-winger in Germany maybe suggests that time is running out on the German’s career in North London.
It’ll be interesting to see how that one plays out, but last night did show that Podolski does still have something to offer us. His natural finishing ability is something we shouldn’t be so lax to let go of, but given the vast wealth of attacking options available to Wenger at present, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that some offloads will need to be made to allow space for the new targets.
There were returns for both Bendtner and Oxlade-Chamberlain after contrasting periods out with injury, and it’s safe to say they showed some signs of rustiness. Totally understandable on both counts and it’s a positive that neither of them went hiding and they both looked to be involved as often as possible.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will especially need to be nurtured back into the side after so long out, but as an enthusiastic young lad no doubt desperate to attempt to claim a place in England’s World Cup squad for the summer, we can all expect a huge amount of effort and commitment from the guy and his presence will no doubt have a positive effect on the squad throughout the remainder of the season.
Finally a quick note on young Zelalem who is much hyped about amongst Arsenal fans and he didn’t look out of place in the 20 or so minutes he was on the pitch. The crisp and fluent pass to Cazorla that began the move for our fourth goal was the highlight of his cameo, and he looks like the next young protégée that Wenger has unearthed. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on for the future and he might even be involved more regularly in the senior side sooner than we’d imagine.
So into the 5th Round we go and we’ll now keep an eye on how the other ties progress and whom we get drawn against on Sunday afternoon. Next we travel to Southampton on Tuesday in the League before we enter a tricky February that pits us against Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
There are no easy games from here on in as we’ll be facing teams with plenty to play for, no matter where they sit in the League, but we’ve set the bar high so far in January and if we can keep it up and maintain this form then we’ll be in a great position to end the season in a successful manner.