Theo Walcott spares Arsenal’s blushes to finally kill off Brighton
17:02 26 January 2013
FA Cup fourth round: Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Arsenal 3
Theo Walcott came off the bench to fire Arsenal into the fifth round of the FA Cup, but only after they had been given a real scare by Championship battlers Brighton.
Arsenal led twice through excellent finishes from Olivier Giroud, but were pegged back on each occasion with goals from Ashley Barnes and Leonardo Ulloa, only for Walcott to rifle in a deflected winner with five minutes remaining.
If the victory was perhaps deserved given Arsenal were always an attacking threat, the question marks in defence were again glaring for Arsene Wenger’s side.
However Walcott, one of a number of leading players left out of the starting XI as Wenger kept one eye on Wednesday’s clash with Liverpool, spared their blushes when his strike was deflected in off the Egyptian defender Adam El-Abd.
It also spared the Gunners a replay they would have struggled to fit into their pressing schedule, but Wenger could have had few complaints if that had been the outcome after a patchy display from a patched-up side.
Wenger had intimated on the eve of the game that he would play a strong team, but there were a few eyebrows raised when the team-sheet revealed that first-team regulars such as Jack Wilshere, Walcott and Santi Cazorla were on the bench.
So too were first-choice full-backs Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, and the decision to play Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson instead was perhaps the biggest gamble from the Gunners boss.
In the early exchanges Brighton did look positive but the game changed within one classic moment of action at both ends after quarter of an hour.
The capacity Amex Stadium were on their feet when David Lopez nodded a ball through to Barnes, but Wojciech Szczesny reacted superbly to tip his effort around a post.
The Polish goalkeeper then claimed the resulting corner and quickly released the ball to Tomas Rosicky to lead a counter-attack. The Czech found Lukas Podolski on the edge of the box, who laid the ball off for Giroud to control and then curl a superb left-footed finish into the top right-hand corner of Casper Ankergren’s net.
It was probably Giroud’s best goal yet in an Arsenal shirt, but any idea that it was going to lead to another Gunners rout was soon dispelled.
Brighton had the ball in the net within 10 minutes thanks to new Argentinian striker Ulloa, only for the effort to be ruled out by a wafer-thin offside decision.
But on 33 minutes they were level. The impressive Lopez swung in a corner from the right flank and Barnes took advantage of Szczesny’s hesitation to head into an empty net with Arsenal’s defence left looking at each other.
It was the least the home side deserved, and they finished the first half in the ascendancy with the equaliser putting a massive dent in Arsenal’s confidence.
Brighton had already lost Gordon Greer to injury in the first half, and Will Buckley did not reappear after the break, replaced by Kazenga LuaLua.
Arsenal looked like they had been given a talking-to at the break and almost re-took the lead after 53 minutes when, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought down in full flight, Podolski slammed a 30-yard free-kick against the crossbar.
The travelling Arsenal fans behind that goal did not have to wait long for a second goal, however, and it was another nice piece of work from Giroud.
Abou Diaby’s delicate through ball released the Frenchman, but he had the close attentions of the defender Adam El-Abd to deal with, something he managed by working the ball on to his left foot and scoring with a left-footed finish past Ankergren.
Arsenal were ahead, but again their lack of experience and professionalism saw them pegged back within five minutes. There was nowhere near enough pressure on Barnes as he crossed from Arsenal’s left side, where Andre Santos endured another difficult afternoon, and the central defenders were equally negligent in allowing the debutant Ulloa to score from close range with a diving header.
Wenger was cursing on the touchline, and decided to act soon afterwards as Wilshere and Walcott were summoned from the bench to replace the tiring Rosicky and the subdued Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It had the desired effect as the pair combined for the winner. Wilshere’s corner was only partially cleared, and Walcott’s shot from the edge of the box took a crucial deflection off El-Abd to beat Ankergren.
Arsenal are through, and talk of an FA Cup win will again abound, but they will have to play an awful lotbetter than this to have any hope of reaching Wembley.
Brighton: Ankergren, Calderon, El-Abd, Bridge, Greer (Dicker, 37), David Lopez, Bridcutt, Hammond, Barnes, Ulloa (Mackail-Smith, 72), Buckley (LuaLua, 45).
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Orlandi, Vicente, Painter.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos (Gibbs, 79), Ramsey, Diaby, Rosicky (Wilshere, 69), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott, 69), Giroud.
Subs not used: Mannone, Sagna, Cazorla, Arshavin.