Arsenal strikers end drought in welcome FA Cup win at Hull
HULL, England -- Three observations from the KC Stadium where Arsenal defeated Hull City 4-0 to advance to the sixth round of the FA Cup.
1. Wenger's welcomed win comes at a cost
History has a habit of repeating itself at Arsenal. It may do yet again. For the third successive season, they have eliminated Hull from the FA Cup. Once again, it could produce a silver lining to a season which is unlikely to deliver a league title or a place in the last eight of the Champions League. But after Tuesday's 4-0 victory over Hull, they remain on course for a hat-trick of wins in the world's oldest cup competition.
Much as it was when their unbeaten 2003-04 side became the first Invincibles since the 1880s, Arsenal are prompting comparisons with a 19th-century team. No club has won the FA Cup in three consecutive years since Blackburn in the 1880s. None, indeed, has eliminated Arsenal from this competition since Blackburn, rather more recently in 2013.
More immediately, however, this represented relief and respite. This was Arsenal's first win in six games, secured as Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott cast off their poor form to score braces, and their reward is a quarter-final against Watford at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The scoreline flattered them, however. A weakened Hull side took the Gunners to a replay and the Championship team spurned the chances to spring an upset in the second attempt, and Arsenal could be grateful to goalkeeper David Ospina for a wonderful fingertip save to deny David Meyler, before Arsenal's fine finishing took them out of sight in the final quarter.
But victory may have come at a cost. All three of Wenger's substitutions were enforced by injury. One, indeed, was a replacement: Aaron Ramsey came on and hobbled off. Arsenal could enter vital games with a lack of fit midfielders and centre-backs.
Per Mertesacker went off after a clash of heads with Nick Powell while Gabriel was also removed and, with Laurent Koscielny already sidelined, they ended with a makeshift partnership of Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers at the back. Shorn of their tallest defenders, Arsenal looked vulnerable to crosses. Hull won headers but directed too few on target.
2. Giroud ends his barren run
The great Giroud drought spanned a dozen games and ended a day short of eight weeks. Arsenal's top scorer had seemed in fine form when he netted a brace at Anfield in January. It took his tally to nine goals in as many matches. There were few hints his longest barren run as a Gunner was set to follow.
Nor, indeed, were there too many indications that it was going to end the best part of two months. Giroud's very presence at Hull was a sign of his decline in status. He has been upstaged and displaced by Danny Welbeck of late. The eager Englishman will never be prolific, but his status as the first choice seemed cemented as he was rested.
Giroud's return to the starting 11 began in inauspicious fashion. Confronted with three centre-backs, starved of service and given insufficient support, the lively Joel Campbell apart, his seemed a difficult task. Assistance came from unlikely quarters.
Meyler is not known for defence-splitting passes. He produced one. Sadly for the Hull midfielder, it was his own defence he cut out as he picked out Giroud. The Frenchman's finish was assured. The only difficulty, in all probability, was suspending his disbelief that he was found with such a perfect pass. Giroud had become a father for the second time on Monday and, while less important, this represented a second piece of good news in quick succession.
He was buoyed by his opening goal, and took his second superbly as he volleyed in Walcott's cross. Supplier turned scorer with Walcott converting Campbell's fine pass before drilling in a late fourth. After two goals in 24 games, he had two more in a dozen minutes. In attack, if not elsewhere, Wenger's options are increasing.
3. No repeat of Jakopovic heroics
One of the finer goalkeeping performances of the season came from a second-tier club's second choice. Eldin Jakupovic made 11 saves as he kept a clean sheet in the stalemate at the Emirates 17 days earlier. Allan McGregor's deputy was restored to the Hull side for the rematch.
Perhaps inevitably, there was no repeat of his heroics. Truth be told, he had no chance to produce a sequel. Arsenal had eight attempts of note. Four were clinically-taken goals, one an unstoppable curler from Kieran Gibbs that hit the angle of post and bar. Jakupovic saved a tame shot from Giroud and tipped rather better efforts from Mohamed Elneny and Alex Iwobi away, denying each a first Arsenal goal, but while he ended rather busier than he began, others commanded the headlines.
Jakupovic started off as a spectator who was well shielded for the first 40 minutes. Manager Steve Bruce had changed tack against Arsenal, looking for added security by introducing a third centre-back -- he has only been fielding two in league games -- and getting plenty of bodies in the centre of the pitch. It was a damage-limitation strategy that prevented chances until Meyler erred.
Now Hull's defeat means that, unless McGregor picks up an injury or a suspension, Jakopovic's season may be effectively over. He was not the only understudy on show. Bruce has 21 fit players, even if the two on loan from Arsenal, Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden, were ineligible. He has strength in depth and options, certainly by Championship standards. What he has not got, at the moment anyway, is goals. Hull have only mustered one in their last six games, Mohamed Diame's winner at Ipswich, and the shortage could cost them an immediate return to the Premier League. On this occasion, perhaps Hull's best chance fell to a Bruce. Alex, the manager's son, headed wide. His own reaction suggested that he thought he should have scored.
The chances are that, like Jakupovic, Alex will be bound for the bench when his father recalls the regulars. Hull now face a pivotal spell of three Championship games in seven days, culminating in a trip to promotion rivals Middlesbrough. That game, not this, could define their season.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.