FA Cup: Brighton v Arsenal proved Cup can still have magic

 

Brighton's record crowd at their superbly appointed new stadium and an Arsenal team with some big names kept carefully out of harm's way looked like an ideal FA Cup combination.

And for those of us who rage against the argument that the great old competition has lost a little of its lustre, it helped to provide the perfect response to those ready to downgrade the FA Cup.

Not a spare seat in sight, the visiting allocation of 4,000 seats sold out inside 24 hours and a Championship side on an upward curve scenting a shock against Premier League opponents - all FA Cup life was located a few yards off the A27 on Saturday afternoon.

Brighton may have lost a pulsating cup tie played in a thunderous atmosphere but, as a club, every contribution they made on and off the pitch did them great credit. They have finally marked their territory after years of wandering after leaving the Goldstone Ground and look perfectly at home.

For Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger there was the satisfaction, tinged with no small measure of relief, that they had emerged unscathed from an FA Cup tie that the word "hazardous" running right through the middle of it like a stick of Brighton rock.

Arsene Wenger

Wenger wants a first trophy since 2005

If Arsenal accept reality, they will agree that the FA Cup represents their best chance of ending eight years without a trophy. They are irrelevant in Premier League title terms and even Wenger's seemingly inexhaustible reserves of optimism would be tested by the suggestion they might win the Champions League.

This is why Arsenal's supporters celebrated with such gusto and sang of Wembley when referee Michael Oliver brought a rip-roaring cracker to a close. And why Wenger accepted he had played a dangerous game by leaving Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla on the bench.

Wenger knew, and admitted as much, that he would have invited criticism from his detractors and outrage from Arsenal's fans had a deliberately weakened team slipped up against opposition from a lower tier and cast another trophy opportunity aside.

In the end it required Walcott's deflected late goal to give Arsenal a 3-2 win after Ashley Barnes and Leonardo Ulloa had equalised two goals from the outstanding Olivier Giroud.

And for all Arsenal's defensive uncertainty - typified by another nightmarish contribution from Andre Santos - they deserve full marks for digging in and coming through against a team and at a stadium when plenty of Premier League teams could have subsided.

Wenger's silverware

Arsenal won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups in Wenger's first nine seasons in charge and have won nothing since 2005.

It was a mixed day for two of Wenger's signings. While those who question the manager's judgement may produce Santos - scragged embarrassingly all along Arsenal's left flank by the lively Will Buckley until his injury - as "Exhibit A" in their case for the prosecution, Giroud is presenting increasing evidence that Wenger has called that deal just right.

For someone who has not yet been deemed a success in all quarters, his two goals at The Amex made it four in a week after his contribution to Arsenal's 5-1 win against West Ham United. The £12m summer signing from Montpellier now has 13 goals and nine assists this season - a very reasonable return.

After watching Giroud struggle, snatch at easy chances and generally look uncomfortable in an Arsenal shirt earlier this season, this was a player who has grown in stature and confidence.

When Arsenal toiled to contain Brighton, they could look to Giroud as their main source of danger. He presented a powerful physical threat and showed off all assets of his game with his goals.

The first was precise, curled high past Brighton keeper Casper Ankergren with his left foot. The second was a close-range swoop that showed more predatory instincts. He also forced a fine save from the keeper and was narrowly off target with another effort.

It did, however, need the introduction of Arsenal's cavalry in the shape of Walcott and Wilshere to bring matters to a successful conclusion and secure a place in the fifth round.

Oliver Giroud

Giroud has scored 13 goals this season

As Arsenal drive deeper into the FA Cup, then surely Wenger will play his strongest side to give The Gunners their best chance of reclaiming the trophy that was actually the last one they won, against Manchester United in Cardiff in 2005.

Wenger acknowledged that the quality of Arsenal's performance was secondary. It was all about getting through and this was mission accomplished - eventually.

Arsenal have cup credentials. They have the players and the ability to pull it together on a certain day and Wenger must recognise that. They can also score goals (and concede them as well admittedly) and that makes them a healthy FA Cup proposition.

The speed with which Arsenal shifted their allocation for this visit to Brighton is an indicator of how their fans feel about the FA Cup and what it may mean to their season.

It is the trophy Arsenal can talk about winning without inviting serious questions - it is the competition that Wenger can use to banish some of the doubts supporters express about the direction of the club.

Wenger may speak about Champions League qualification as a "trophy" but the FA Cup is the real thing. And it was proved once again on a thrilling afternoon at Brighton.