Arsenal v Middlesbrough
Emirates Stadium, 16.00 BST
Arsenal have enjoyed a superb FA Cup run of eight victories and their chance at a ninth is against a Championship side at the Emirates. In theory, everything is set for progression to the fifth round that would see us be one step away from Wembley. However, there is more than just one reason to avoid complacency in this game.
First of all, our opponents are second in Championship with the same number of points as leaders Bournemouth but also with a game in hand. Their defensive record speaks for itself – only twenty goals conceded in thirty games suggest how tight at the back they are. It’s not a surprise given that Aitor Karanka, who used to play as a central defender for Real Madrid, learnt his trade as Jose Mourinho’s assistant during the Portuguese’s spell at Real Madrid.
Second of all, they have shown they don’t have any complex when playing against the top Premiership sides as they have already beaten Manchester City at the Etihad 2:0.
Third of all, it’s the FA Cup and all kind of upsets can happen. Just ask fans of City and Chelsea, the title challengers were knocked out on their own soil against teams from lower divisions.
Also, we don’t have all our best players available as Alexis Sánchez is actually human after all, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are also out for the game and Abou Diaby’s career ended years ago after that idiot from Sunderland broke his ankle.
Finally, our last FA Cup defeat took place at the Emirates against a Championship side with Mike Dean in charge. We lost to Blackburn 0:1 in one of the weirdest matches ever as we were dominant from the very first minute till the end but one lapse of concentration ended our hopes of winning the Cup.
That defeat occurred on 16th February after we had beaten Brighton & Hove Albion 3:2 in a previous round. Now, Middlesbrough are a more serious team than Blackburn were two years ago but, fortunately, we are stronger than we were back then.
Middlesbrough have caused problems for us in the not so distant past. Actually, they took away five points from us in the 2007-08 league campaign and the eventual champions Manchester United collected just four points more than us. Our reject Jeremie Aliadiere was especially motivated. We won the last clash between the sides though, Cesc Fabregas scored twice in our 2:0 victory in April 2009. That was our only victory in the last six matches against Middlesbrough and the only victory against them since the move from Highbury to Emirates.
Our victory against Leicester wasn’t anything to write home about, we lost Alexis and Ramsey to injuries and failed to impress against the side that are nailed at the bottom of the league. So, we all expect that our team will go through some rotation.
Wojciech Szczesny, as Arsene Wenger has already announced, will get a chance to restore his No.1 position. His last performance was against Brighton in the previous round of the competition. He did concede twice but wasn’t at fault for either of the goals.
Hector Bellerin will probably start on the right side of the defence. If he does, he’ll have to play much better than against Spuds and Leicester.
Kieran Gibbs might get the nod ahead of Nacho Monreal so the Spaniard can get some rest.
Per Mertesacker is more likely to play next to Gabriel Paulista than Laurent Koscielny. Both Gabriel and Koscielny are front-foot defenders and that combination has never worked for us (see: Koscielny-Vermaelen combination). Mertesacker is the best when it comes to positioning and leading the defence which might help Gabriel to find his feet as soon as possible while Koscielny might get some rest. Calum Chambers might get the nod at some point and he is also a candidate for the right full-back spot in case Wenger decides to drop Bellerin.
Francis Coquelin will probably start as he is without a real alternative as the shield of our back four.
Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini might get a chance to start in front of Coquelin. The Czech would emulate Santi Cazorla, who hasn’t been at his best in the last two outings, while Flamini might help Coquelin in doing the dirty work.
Theo Walcott will start on the right and hope for another successful afternoon in terms of goals as he has scored three in the last few weeks.
Mesut Özil will start on the left side of the attack again and provide crucial passes in the final third. The German has enjoyed a very productive few weeks (a goal against Brighton, a goal and an assist against Aston Villa, a goal against Spuds, two assists against Leicester) and there is no reason why he shouldn’t keep making goals.
Danny Welbeck might get the nod ahead of Olivier Giroud even though I’d opt for the Frenchman instead. Giroud is more important for the balance of our team than Welbeck while the Englishman is a speed demon.
It will be a difficult game as the opponents have experienced defenders like Jonathan Woodgate in the defence, effective midfielders like Grant Leadbitter and talented strikers like Patrick Bamford so we’ll have to put on our best display today in order to avoid 2014-15 FA Cup Hall of Shame where Chelsea, Manchester City and, of course, Spuds have already been accepted as valuable members.
I’d go with a 2:1 victory with goals from Theo Walcott after two of Özil’s perfect passes with Lee Tomlin scoring for the visitors.
Head to head
English Premier League (EPL) 26 Apr 2009 Arsenal FC 2 – Middlesbrough 0
English Premier League (EPL) 13 Dec 2009 Middlesbrough 1 – Arsenal FC 1
English Premier League (EPL) 15 Mar 2008 Arsenal FC 1 – Middlesbrough 1
English Premier League (EPL) 9 Dec 2007 Middlesbrough 2 – Arsenal FC 1
English Premier League (EPL) 3 Feb 2007 Middlesbrough 1 – Arsenal FC 1
Bellerin Mertesacker (c) Gabriel Gibbs
Arsenal 2 v 1 Middlesbrough