Alexis Sanchez strikes as Arsenal overcome stubborn Burnley
LONDON -- Three points from Arsenal's 2-1 victory over Burnley in the FA Cup fourth round Saturday as Alexis Sanchez struck on his first start back from injury:
1. Sanchez strikes as Arsenal edge it
Sanchez's goal to help Arsenal overcome Burnley on Saturday afternoon provided a positive ending to a tough January for Arsene Wenger's men. Sanchez made his first start since injuring his hamstring in November and showed Arsenal just what they've been missing. The Chilean forward adds a more direct approach to the attack and showed off his range of skills here, first setting up Calum Chambers for the opening goal and then thumping home an emphatic finish in the second half to end Burnley's resistance.
It was the type of game-winning performance that Arsenal have grown accustomed to and another indication of how important he could be to the team's title hopes in the Premier League.
Championship side Burnley had put up strong resistance until Sanchez's goal, and Arsenal's defence looked shaky again despite the return of holding midfielder Francis Coquelin, who also made his first start since November.
But in the end this was a pleasing afternoon for Wenger, who was able to make nine changes from the 1-0 loss to Chelsea last Sunday. After a season full of injury concerns, Wenger is now in a position to enjoy the kind of squad depth he has been lacking for much of the campaign.
David Ospina returned in goal for his first appearance since his blunder in a 3-2 loss to Olympiakos in the Champions League and made a key save to deny Andre Gray when it was still scoreless in the first half.
Chambers was given a start at right-back, where he is now the main backup to Hector Bellerin. The defender's finish for the opening goal would have made Sanchez proud, curling a shot with the outside of his right boot into the far top corner in the 19th minute.
Alex Iwobi was given his second start in this competition, with Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel Paulista also getting the chance as Wenger rested a host of his regulars. Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini were given the day off, while Per Mertesacker served his one-game suspension after being sent off against Chelsea. And to cap it all off, Tomas Rosicky came on in the second half for his first appearance of the season, showing Wenger's wealth of options going forward.
For a team that had taken only two points from their past three league games but are still hoping to compete on three fronts this season, Wenger could hardly have hoped for a better result.
2. Mohamed Elneny's debut raises questions
Elneny's debut was solid, but not spectacular. The Egyptian was deployed in central midfield alongside Iwobi and in front of the deeper-lying Coquelin, giving fans their first look at the new arrival from Basel.
Wenger had described him as a mix between Ramsey and Flamini, but he looked much more like the former in this game. Given the freedom to roam forward, Elneny showed his tireless running ability by frequently breaking into the box and getting involved in the team's passing moves.
He scored several spectacular goals from distance for Basel and eager shouts of "shoot" rippled through the crowd when he received the ball outside the area in the ninth minute. Elneny obliged, but only managed a tame effort straight at Tom Heaton.
He forced a better save in the second half as Arsenal pushed for a third goal, but his overall performance left the feeling that he's still finding his place on this team. He was muscled off the ball a couple of times and needs to get to grips with the physical aspect of the English game.
Wenger has lauded Elneny's versatility and ability to play as both a defensive and box-to-box midfielder. The problem may be that he doesn't seem to be a specialist at either. With Coquelin back to serve as Arsenal's ball-winner-in-chief, Elneny may struggle to get many chances to show his skills in that role.
And while he displayed good passing skills and decision-making here, he didn't do much to show that he should be preferred to Ramsey in the box-to-box role. Elneny certainly gives Wenger more options to mix up his personnel and formations in midfield, but it remains to be seen what the best fit is.
3. Gray and Burnley's dream dies
Gray spent his childhood dreaming of playing for Arsenal, but the Burnley striker couldn't produce a fairy-tale moment in his first appearance at the Emirates.
Burnley's leading scorer, with 15 goals in the Championship this season, had a chance to add to his tally early in the first half when he brushed off Laurent Koscielny to break clear on goal. But Ospina rushed off his line to make a one-handed save and deny Gray.
But he and his teammates showed why they have a good chance to get promoted back to the Premier League this season. Their physical forwards caused constant problems for Arsenal's back four and showed no fear in taking on the FA Cup holders. Sean Dyche's team were happy to sit back and let Arsenal keep possession but did well in containing the attacking threat of Olivier Giroud and Sanchez up front.
Their equaliser was a textbook example of how to attack Arsenal's weakness in the air. The Gunners failed to clear the ball after a corner and Burnley played the ball out to Tendayi Darikwa on the right wing. He whipped a perfect cross into the area and Sam Vokes rose above Koscielny to head past a helpless Ospina. It was one of the few chances they created, but for a moment they had Arsenal rattled.
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This Burnley team still contains the core of the squad that played in the Premier League last year and if they keep playing with this intensity, they could be back playing at the Emirates next season in the league.
Gray has said he wants to emulate Leicester's Jamie Vardy in going from non-league football to the Premier League, and whether it's with Burnley or another team, that seems likely to happen one day.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him @MattiasKaren.