Arsenal eased into the semi-finals of the FA Cup with an initially tight, ultimately rather overwhelming defeat of a spirited Lincoln City team on a muggy, decelerating afternoon. Goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud either side of half-time killed a tie that had looked quite well matched, with the last half-hour reduced to a possession exercise for the home team and a dogged rearguard for the men from the National League.
The scars of the midweek mauling by Bayern Munich will be soothed a little, but only a very little, by this victory, while there were concerns for Arsène Wenger in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s early injury and Granit Xhaka’s early substitution after another bone-headed booking.
It was tempting at times during a goalless first half to dwell on Arsenal’s failings, their uncertain passing, the lack of drive.
For all Arsenal’s well-rehearsed timidity Lincoln were magnificent here in that opening 45 minutes, producing a performance of craft on the ball and stifling movement that reflects huge credit not just on the National League but on every tier below the top.
Predictably, there was a Wenger backbeat even to this FA Cup tie. Outside the ground there was another mini-protest, with some supporters brandishing banners with the word “Wexit”, which presumably got the nod ahead of the more striking but potentially misleading “Arsexit”.
These games are really all about the away fans, though. Just short of 9,000 made the trip here and the Lincoln end was duly heaving before kick-off with Poznans being wheeled out even as the players warmed up.
The Cowley brothers have produced a brilliantly well-prepared team, a product of endless hours of stat-crunching and quixotic self-belief. Lincoln started quickly, hustling and nipping at Arsenal’s heels. Before long the first cross was launched towards the hulking Matt Rhead. Moments later the Kong-like Rhead produced a wonderful back-flick near the touchline, taking out two Arsenal players and drawing “Olé’s” from the away end.
Arsenal fielded their strongest team, with Mesut Özil still off-colour and confined to the bench. They were bitty and a little flat in the early minutes. Aaron Ramsey shot wide under no pressure from Héctor Bellerín’s cut-back, the rushed finish of a man with one goal for Arsenal in the past year.
With 15 minutes gone Paul Farman produced a wonderful save at the foot of the post, clawing away a fine volley from Walcott. With 23 minutes gone Xhaka was booked for a wild lunge at Rhead, to make it five yellows and a red in his past six games.
There was an injury-enforced change shortly afterwards with Oxlade-Chamberlain off and the lesser-seen Özil on. Lincoln then created a wonderful chance to open the scoring. Nathan Arnold weaved through on the right, cutting inside Xhaka and Koscielny, both of whom just wafted out of his way, but his shot was palmed away by Petr Cech.
Arsenal finally found space in the penalty area right on the stroke of half-time. Farman had just rescued Lincoln with a low scrambling save. From the corner the ball ping-ponged about, Kieran Gibbs played a nice pass inside to Walcott and he had time to look up and thread a shot into the far corner.
It was cruel on Lincoln, who had been at least Arsenal’s equal in that first half. But the goal was also reward for Walcott’s endeavour and a huge relief for Wenger, who came leaping up off his bench pumping his fist. Half-time arrived to a roar from the away end and a sense of creeping relief around the rest of the ground.
Lincoln came out jazzed and ready to fight after the break, the excellent Alex Woodyard drawing an instant booking for a trip on Gibbs. The left-back then should have added a second goal, instead heading weakly over from Sánchez’s cut-back.
Before long Lincoln were being driven ever deeper as Arsenal’s passing carousel begun to clunk into gear with Özil floating all over the pitch and finding some lovely little in-between positions. Giroud duly made it 2-0 on 52 minutes, slotting home after some neat work from Sánchez and Bellerín on the right.
A third goal arrived, turned into his own net by Luke Waterfall after good work by Gibbs on the left.
By now the gulf in fitness and class was painfully evident, Lincoln increasingly exhausted by the demands of playing without the ball. Sánchez added a fourth after a typical neat, sniping run and a fine low shot into the far corner. Ramsey scored the fifth with 15 minutes left, walking the ball into the net after a scramble to some personal relief.
Even at 5-0 down Lincoln kept playing, pushing on right to the end of what had been a miraculous journey here. They were the first non-league team in the FA Cup quarter-finals since 1914, a feat that becomes more impressive with time given the violent stratification at the top of the league.
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