In beating Cardiff City 4-0 in the FA Cup Fourth Round replay at Ashburton Grove on Monday night, Arsenal finally delivered a performance to lighten the recent mood and, more importantly, the goals started flowing again.
Unsurprisingly, it was Eduardo's two-goal comeback display that grabbed all the headlines and there was no doubt that his triumphant return was emotional for both the player himself and the supporters.
A year ago, everyone watching the aftermath of the challenge on Eduardo at Birmingham City was overcome with that sick feeling one gets when it is clear that a player is seriously injured. When the extent of the damage became evident, few imagined that the Croatian would have been able to play ever again.
Consequently, his inclusion in the team on Monday was the culmination of twelve months of hard work by the player and the Arsenal physios and the warmth of the reception he got when his name was read out by the stadium announcer was palpable. For him to then score two goals was the stuff of dreams. The joy that greeted both strikes exorcised all the ghosts of that dark day in the Midlands last year.
Understandably, Eduardo looked a little short of match fitness and it remains to be seen how much the injury will have affected his pace. What was evident on Monday night though was that neither his speed of thought nor eye for goal have been blunted by his ordeal. He touch was classy and even when not in the penalty area was able to conjure up several visionary passes. He also looked unfazed by a couple of heavy challenges from the Cardiff defenders – he simply dusted himself down and carried on with game. When substituted just after an hour in, he received a rapturous standing ovation from the crowd. The evening really could not have gone better for him.
Eduardo’s return aside, this was a fluent and confidence-boosting performance by the Gunners, the like of which we have not seen for several months. Cardiff proved in the first match that they are no push-overs and yet in this replay they barely managed to get out of their own half. Arsenal created plenty of chances and the margin of victory actually ought to have been wider. Certainly, Nicklas Bendtner squandered a great chance just before half time to add to the goal he had already scored during the first period. It was a shame for the Dane because other than that missed opportunity he had an outstanding match. Cleverly dropping into positions in the hole and out wide, he made himself constantly available to midfield players and his link play provided the oil to keep the Arsenal machine relentlessly ticking over. He deserved his goal and his exquisite pass to Robin Van Persie provided the Dutchman with the opening to hit the Gunner’s fourth goal.
After several months of doom, gloom and a deficiency of goals, this victory lifted everyone’s spirits and on such performances seasons can sometimes turn. With Andrey Arshavin due to make his debut at the weekend and Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott less than a month away from making their returns, it suddenly feels like there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Arsenal still have a massive task ahead of them to ensure they finish in the top four but, as players start to filter back into the squad from injury, they bring with them a sense of optimism and also provide the manager with more options than he has had to work with over the past few months.
Beating Cardiff was also a boost insofar as the way the FA Cup draws have worked out the Gunners now have a really good chance of getting to the semi-final. They know that in the next two rounds they have two home games – firstly against Burnley and, should they wreak revenge on the team that dumped them out of the Carling Cup, they will then face the winners of the Hull City vs Sheffield United Fifth Round replay. Any complacency should be guarded against because the performances still have to be delivered on the pitch but a club like Arsenal ought to feel confident in their ability to beat anyone in the FA Cup on their home turf.
It is back to Premier League business on Saturday and the Gunners play host to Sunderland at Ashburton Grove. With Aston Villa and Chelsea meeting each other at Villa Park, it is essential that Arsenal take all three points to put some pressure on those two clubs directly above them in the table. Supporters will be keen to get a first look at their new Russian signing but, first and foremost, they will want the confidence and fluidity shown on Monday night against Cardiff to be built on and translated into a run of Premier League form.