Three but far from easy for Arsenal
As big boys crumble, Arsene Wenger's men take on the favourites tag after seeing off brave Brighton
Giants have fallen on the great FA Cup weekend of 24-25 January 2015, but as the smoke clears and the casualties are cleared away, it is the holders who march on at the head of the Premier League's survivors in the fifth round as the bookies' favourites to win it.
Not that it was always easy, and the tie was by means settled until the final whistle, but given the humiliations visited upon Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton over the previous 24 hours, it was enough for Arsène Wenger that Arsenal are through. They are the highest-ranked side in the current Premier League table in the fifth round, with Manchester United still hopeful of joining them.
Theo Walcott scored his first goal in more than a year, Tomas Rosicky was beguiling on occasions, Brighton fought back from a dreadful first half to score twice and Wenger complained bitterly about the tackles meted out to some of his players. Not every aspect of this FA Cup tie was a surprise and had referee Michael Oliver given an 86th-minute penalty to Brighton, it would not have been a major injustice for these teams to have to reconvene for a replay.
Afterwards, Wenger reflected on the weekend's Cup shocks and admitted that, as he watched the results come in, his first thought was to "check twice" that they were genuine. The reality for Wenger is that the bookmakers have his team at the head of the betting now.
"I'm on the other side of the game," said Wenger, when asked about his team's status as FA Cup favourites. "You always want to know what will happen. I always have to stop people thinking what will happen because no one knows. Manchester United will believe they can go through. You can't predict who will win it."
Certainly, it would have been different if referee Oliver had given a penalty when a shot hit by the substitute Adrian Colunga struck the arm of Calum Chambers late on. The Brighton manager, Chris Hughton, said afterwards that it should have been given and he had a point.
Hughton bemoaned his team's slow start and the goal from Walcott within two minutes. Brighton have won three of their last four in the Championship and yet by half-time Mesut Özil had scored a second and the game looked dead. After the break, Chris O'Grady and Sam Baldock scored the goals that made the tie interesting and it was telling that Wenger considered it necessary to send on his star turn Alexis Sanchez before the end.
Arsenal took the lead when Chambers got away from Joe Bennett down the right and cut the ball back to Walcott on the edge of the area. He controlled the ball well, giving himself space and time for the shot which he dispatched neatly past David Stockdale and into the goalkeeper's far right corner.
Arsenal went 2-0 through Özil, his first since he scored against Aston Villa on 20 September. This was created by the vision of Rosicky who was afforded enough space on this occasion to run the game. He had embarked on a sequence of no-look passes and this was the best of the lot, dividing a square Brighton defence and presenting Özil with time to take a touch and score.
That looked like it for Brighton but they could count on some chaos in Arsenal's back four at some point and so it arrived with five minutes of the second half played when Nacho Monreal hit a vertical clearance that put Chambers under pressure. The ball simply hit the full-back and O'Grady had little problem holding off Mathieu Flamini and drilling a low shot past Wojciech Szczesny.
The fourth goal came nine minutes later, a mini-masterpiece from Rosicky who jinked past a defender outside the box, back-heeled the ball to Olivier Giroud and readied himself for the return, hitting it first time on the volley past Stockdale.
The home team's second goal was a finish of Sanchez-standard, by then on the pitch as a substitute, a delicate lift over Szczesny as Baldock chased Danny Holla's well-judged ball through Arsenal's back line.
Arsenal find themselves in a fifth-round draw tonight that is without so many of the big guns. "With the results this weekend, you want to be cautious," Wenger said, "the Cup is the Cup". And for the time being it remains in Arsenal's possession, with the immediate future prospects for retaining it rosier than they might have expected.