Arsenal soothe away form pain by grinding out victory at Middlesbrough
Sanchez and Ozil see off spirited Boro but Gunners still face tough task to reach Champions League
17 April, 2017 — By Richard Osley
MIDDLESBROUGH 1, ARSENAL 2
ARSENAL brought their losing streak on the road to an end by toughing out a win at relegation-threatened Middlesbrough tonight (Monday). The Gunners had lost four away matches in a row before arriving at the Riverside Stadium and were down in seventh place in the league table. This win nudged them up to sixth, although Champions League qualification still looks like a tall order. The club’s two star players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were the difference, netting a goal each. Sealing new deals for the pair remains important business this summer at the Emirates Stadium, whoever is in charge.
The future of current boss Arsene Wenger may be in doubt but he suddenly showed himself to be open to new tricks as he switched to three at the back, a reshuffle which was billed as his first change in formation in 19 years. The more defensive approach did not completely eradicate moments of confusion. Nacho Monreal struggled when challenged for pace, Gabriel looked solid one moment and panicked the next, and even Laurent Koscielny was caught sleeping when Boro equalised. There were periods in the second half when the home side certainly threatened to add to Arsenal’s recent pain by taking all three points.
But there were positives too, and not just the three points which enabled Wenger’s men to leapfrog back over Everton. Sanchez seemed to have re-found his trademark enthusiasm, celebrating with the fans at the final whistle as if energised by the thought of next weekend’s rather different challenge, a FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley. Ozil too played a more influential role. And while Olivier Giroud was ineffectual, to give a polite assessment, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both showed glimpses of encouraging form.
Sanchez opened the scoring on 37 minutes by bending in a free-kick from the edge of the penalty. It was well-hit and spectacular, zipping over the wall and through a rainstorm, but Boro may be talking about keeper Brad Guzan’s sluggish reaction when they regroup in training tomorrow. Their video analysis will show it did not reach the top corner on its way in.
During the interval, Arsenal may have been dreaming of a second half in which Boro left gaps at the back as they came out and searched for an equaliser but, within five minutes of restarting, they had surrendered their lead. Stewart Downing outfoxed Monreal to spin a cross beyond all of the extra Arsenal defenders and into path of Alvaro Negredo, who happily tucked it past Petr Cech. Then came the chaos, as the ball was cleared off the Arsenal goal line twice, first from Ben Gibson and then Daniel Ayala. Boro sub Adama Traore also threatened to put the home side ahead but his exciting, weaving runs were always without an end product.
Then, after weathering the storm, Arsenal expanded their own attacking efforts and scored the winner through Ozil. It was a fine goal, Sanchez served up to Ramsey, who chested the ball into the path of Ozil, who in turn rattled it past Guzan at the near post.
Boro brought on an extra striker in Rudy Gestede and late on there were further chances during a pulsating final ten minutes. The stretched play twice let Oxlade-Chamberlain loose on the Boro goal, but he snatched at the chances. His head drooped at the final whistle, perhaps thinking of the missed chances to add his name to the scoresheet, but he should have done enough to earn a starting spot at Wembley.
Wenger said afterwards: “It was a big test, Middlesbrough gave everything tonihjy. It’s one of their last chances to stay in the league. Finishing in the top four for us is mathematically still alive. We knew we needed to win. Now we have a little break with the FA Cup and then we come back again to the league.”
ARSENAL: Cech – Gabriel, Holding, Koscielny – Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka, Ramsey – Ozil (Coquelin 89), Sanchez (Bellerin 89), Giroud
SUBS NOT USED: Walcott, Martinez, Iwobi, Gibbs, Elneny