FA Cup: Arsenal bounce back to silence critics
Arsenal got back on track as Per Mertesacker helped the FA Cup holders silence the critics with a 2-0 win over Hull in the third round on Sunday.
Arsene Wenger's side had come in for more vitriolic abuse after the latest setback in their spluttering campaign at Southampton in midweek, but Mertesacker's first half opener and an
Alexis Sanchez strike in the closing stages erased the bitter taste of that 2-0 defeat.
Mertesacker had shouldered his share of the blame for Arsenal's fragile defensive displays this season, but the German centre-back produced the perfect response in freezing conditions at the Emirates Stadium.
Sanchez weighed in as well with a fine finish which condemned Hull to more FA Cup misery eight months after Arsenal came from two goals down to beat the Tigers in the final at Wembley.
That victory ended Arsenal's nine-year trophy drought and was supposed to signal the start of a new era of success for the north Londoners, but instead their campaign has been marred by the same inconsistencies that have plagued them for so long.
In the circumstances, Wenger will have been pleased with a routine win and the return of Theo Walcott, who made his first start since suffering serious knee injury exactly a year ago against Tottenham at the same stage of the Cup.
Walcott, 25, missed Arsenal's FA Cup final win and England's World Cup campaign as a result of the injury and had only 51 minutes of first-team action in three substitute appearances since then.
But he lasted for 76 minutes on his return to the line-up and Arsenal's attack should be stronger if he can stay fit in the second half of the season.
Hull, battling at the wrong end of the Premier League, made their priorities clear with 10 changes from the team which beat Everton on New Year's Day and it was no surprise to see them struggle to get a foothold in the game.
Arsenal created the first chance when Joel Campbell's close-range shot was blocked by Hull goalkeeper Steve Harper after the Costa Rica forward's exchange of passes with Sanchez prised opened the visitors' defence.
Walcott then picked out Sanchez for a deft chip that dropped onto the roof of the net.
Arsenal's dominance was rewarded as they took the lead in the 20th minute.
It was a moment of redemption for Mertesacker, who had been criticised for his sloppy defending in the Southampton debacle.
Sanchez swung over a deep corner towards the far post and Mertesacker rose above Hull captain Curtis Davies to head down and past Harper.
Wenger's men almost doubled their advantage moments later when Tomas Rosicky made an penetrating run that took him away from two defenders to play in Sanchez, who rounded Harper but saw his shot is cleared off the line by the sliding Paul McShane.
The Gunners were in complete control and another teasing Sanchez corner ended with Hull's Yannick Sagbo diverting the ball dangerously close to his own goal before Harper came to the rescue.
Walcott showed a glimpse of his best asset, his blistering pace, as he surged onto Santi Cazorla's pass to test Harper with a side-footed effort.
Arsenal had lost only one of their last 38 home FA Cup ties and Bruce's side never looked likely to put a blemish on that impressive record in the second half.
Sanchez left Davies trailing in his wake as the Chilean broke into the penalty area, only to produce a scuffed shot that Harper comfortably smothered.
Walcott should have sealed the win six minutes later when he collected Cazorla's defence-splitting pass, but the winger miscued his shot well wide.
Sanchez finally put the result beyond doubt in the 82nd minute, taking Cazorla's pass before spinning to find space to shoot low past Harper from the edge of the area.
Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City reached the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, but third-tier Sheffield United confirmed their cup pedigree by winning 3-0 at Queens Park Rangers.
Nigel Clough's League One side, who reached last season's semi-finals and face Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of this season's League Cup, won via a Marc McNulty goal and a second-half brace from Jamal Campbell-Ryce.
QPR, whose manager, Harry Redknapp, made seven changes to his starting XI, became the second top-flight team to be knocked out in the third round following Newcastle United's 1-0 loss at Leicester City on Saturday.
"We know we can come and compete with top teams," said Sheffield United first-team coach Chris Morgan.
"It's great to have a run in the cup - great for supporters and for the revenue of the club."
Premier League joint-leaders Manchester City were given a scare by second-tier Sheffield Wednesday before coming through 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium thanks to a 91st-minute winner from James Milner.
Wednesday had lost 7-0 at City in the League Cup in September, but they took a 14th-minute lead through Atdhe Nuhiu, only for Milner, on his 29th birthday, to equalise in the 66th minute before snatching a last-gasp winner.
City's cross-town rivals Manchester United also recorded a hard-fought victory over lower-league opposition, winning 2-0 at third-tier Yeovil Town.
United manager Louis van Gaal named a strong side featuring Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao for his first FA Cup tie, but had to wait until the 64th minute for Ander Herrera to put the visitors in front with a looping 20-yard shot.
Yeovil continued to press, but United killed the game off in the last minute when Rooney freed substitute Angel di Maria to run through and chip home.
"I had expected this," Van Gaal told the BBC. "It is always difficult to play against a team like this, who play long balls. You have to fight and they gave us a lot of pressure."
Chelsea enjoyed a rather more straightforward victory, winning 3-0 at home to second-division Watford courtesy of second-half strikes by Willian, Loic Remy and Kurt Zouma.
It could prove a positive omen for Jose Mourinho's side, as Chelsea beat Watford en route to glory in the competition in 1970, 2009 and 2010.
Southampton were taken to a replay by Championship side Ipswich Town after a 1-1 draw at St Mary's, while it took a stunning late strike by Christian Benteke for Aston Villa to overcome second-tier Blackpool 1-0.
Meanwhile, non-league Wrexham of the fifth-tier Football Conference came within 10 minutes of creating another piece of FA Cup history, only to lose 3-1 at top-flight Stoke City.
The Welsh side, who knocked out holders Arsenal in the third round in January 1992, went 1-0 up in the 73rd minute at the Britannia Stadium when Mark Carrington headed home a right-wing cross from Connor Jennings.
But with another famous upset beckoning, Marko Arnautovic stabbed home an equaliser in the 80th minute before Stephen Ireland claimed a late brace to send Mark Hughes's side through.
Alan Pardew made a winning start to life as manager of Crystal Palace, who won 4-0 at non-league Dover Athletic thanks to a first-half double by centre-back Scott Dann and goals from Dwight Gayle and Kevin Doyle.
Pardew was appointed Palace manager on Saturday after leaving Newcastle.
Meanwhile, Sunderland repeated their victory over Leeds United in the 1973 final with an identical 1-0 win against the Championship club at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland, whose 1973 win was one of the biggest upsets in the competition's history, prevailed courtesy of a drilled 33rd-minute effort by Dutch left-back Patrick van Aanholt.
Tottenham travel to Burnley on Monday in a repeat of the 1962 final, which Spurs won, and Liverpool visit third-tier AFC Wimbledon for a tie that recalls the original Wimbledon's shock victory in the 1988 final.
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