By Richard Clarke
Arsenal' s love affair with the FA Cup continues. The 2002 and 2003 winners stayed on course for the first hat-trick in over 100 years by beating Middlesbrough 4-1 in Saturday's fourth round tie at Highbury.
Having safely and deservedly secured their passage through, the draw for the fifth round takes place on Monday. Fittingly, those games will be played over Valentine's weekend.
Dennis Bergkamp put the home team ahead in the 19th minute following fine work from Ray Parlour. However Joseph Desire-Job equalised four minutes later.
But Arsenal's invention merited a half -time lead and they got what they deserved in the 28th minute when Freddie Ljungberg thumped home from close range.
They continued to dominate after the break and Ljungberg grabbed a second, his team's third, in the 68th minute. Then, in the dying seconds, substitute David Bentley achieved a personal milestone by chipping a delightful goal over Boro keeper Mark Schwarzer. It was his first for the club.
These two teams had met at Highbury only on Tuesday in the Carling Cup semi-final first leg. As normal, Wenger had played a number of youngsters in that game. The manager also stuck with his usual "FA Cup team" for this visit of Steve McClaren's side this afternoon. It was an XI made up of familiar faces but some first-teamers were rested. Thierry Henry, Gilberto and Pascal Cygan were not involved from the side that won 2-0 at Aston Villa last Sunday.
With Sylvain Wiltord (ankle) and Jeremie Aliadiere (knee) injured plus Kanu now with Nigeria at the African Nations Cup, Arsenal were lacking strikers. Freddie Ljungberg was pushed up front alongside Bergkamp with youngsters Bentley and Quincy on the bench.
Boro also had Wednesday's semi-final second leg in mind as they left Juninho, scorer of the goal that separated the sides on Tuesday, on the bench while Ugo Ehiogu was not risked because of a slight groin strain.
The first 15 minutes passed with little incident. Arsenal had the advantage in terms of possession and territory but failed to create anything until Robert Pires nodded past keeper Mark Schwarzer and into the top corner.
Unfortunately the Frenchman had strayed offside as he ran onto Bergkamp's cross and the goal was chalked off.
However, in the 19th minute, came a lesson in persistence. Edu sent a raking ball for Parlour to run onto down the right flank. Stuart Parnaby seemed to have it covered and tried to usher the ball over the byline for goalkick. However, in came Parlour. He slid in to hook the ball away from under the defender's feet. The former England midfielder then got up and steered a pass back to Ljungberg on the edge of the area. But the Swede let it run for Bergkamp who thumped home his shot despite Chris Riggott's attempts to block.
The lead lasted only four minutes. Franck Queudrue pumped a long ball into the area, Michael Ricketts nodded it on and Desire-Job turned Kolo Toure on the corner of the six-yard box to crack his shot over Jens Lehmann and into the top of the net.
The game was heating up. Seconds later, Ashley Cole forced Schwarzer to a fine diving save to his left. Then the North Bank was calling for a penalty when Riggott appeared to fell Pires as he burst through. Replays confirmed the challenge was outside the penalty area.
It did not matter as the second goal followed immediately. Bergkamp pumped over a free-kick, Sol Campbell nodded it down for Patrick Vieira a few yards out. The captain showed a cool head in a crowded area. Rather than try to turn, he poked the ball back to Ljungberg eight yards out. The Swede twisted and turned to create some space before firing low past Schwarzer.
Five minutes after the interval, Schwarzer kept Boro in the tie with a sharp save from Bergkamp. Arsenal had begun the second period with the slickness had characterised their first half display.
The third came midway through the period. Pires swung over a corner from the left and Ljungberg, probably the smallest player in the six-yard box, nodded home from close range. The assistant referee did indicate the ball had gone in before Gaizka Mendieta blocked the ball on the line. But, as Toure followed up to score, the only doubt was over the scorer not the goal itself.
Ljungberg nearly stuck out a leg to convert a third soon afterwards. Boro tried to raise their game with a treble substitution but, if anything, it was Arsenal who profited from the space their adventurousness created.
Towards the end the visitors began to become frustrated as illustrated when George Boateng received his second yellow card with five minutes left for a foul on Parlour.
Then Bentley finished the game on a high, chipping home exquisitely from outside the area in the final minute of normal time.
A great end to a comprehensive performance.
|Skipper Patrick Vieira races past Boudewijn Zenden||Ashley Cole leaves Gaizka Mendieta in his wake|
|Dennis Bergkamp rifles in a shot to open the scoring||Freddie Ljungberg drills home to make it two to us|
|Freddie jumps highest to head in his second goal||David Bentley opens his Arsenal goal account|
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