For a striker who's supposedly a transfer-market flop, Olivier Giroud is putting together a respectable first season in English football. And for a club with as many headaches as Arsenal, Saturday showed that the season still has promise.
It wasn't easy, and it was hardly pretty, but Arsenal survived a trip to second-tier Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday, outlasting the Seagulls 3-2 in an exciting fourth-round FA Cup match at Falmer Stadium. The match was as eventful—and at times for Arsenal even as terrifying—as the final score would suggest.
Giroud, who cost the Gunners a reported £12 million last summer (per BBC Sport), will draw the headlines for his two-goal performance, and rightly so. The French international twice put Arsenal ahead, and twice he found the net with high-quality finishing.
Problem was, for each of Giroud's goals, the Gunners defense produced a correspondingly careless moment at the back. The disastrous Andre Santos allowed Brighton to run free down his left side throughout his 78 minutes on the pitch, and twice the defense conceded sloppily on straight-forward crosses into the box.
Manager Arsene Wenger gambled on a starting lineup without influential midfielder Jack Wilshere and the recently re-signed Theo Walcott. Both were needed eventually, and though both were forced into the match for 22 minutes, both should remain fresh for the midweek Premier League clash with Liverpool.
And that was the theme for Arsenal on Saturday. Victory was of course vital, but with the fixtures piling up, squad rotation was inevitable. It worked, if only barely, after some of the Gunners' same defensive problems popped up once again.
But thanks to Giroud's classy brace and Walcott's late winner, Arsenal's most realistic chance for silverware this season remains alive.
Brighton started brightly, forcing Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny into a series of early saves. Immediately after a Brighton attack, Arsenal swept forward in the 16th minute with a blistering counter. Lukas Podolski accepted a pass in the middle, laid off for Giroud and watched as the Frenchman curled a beauty past Casper Ankergren into the top corner.
It was precisely the opening Arsenal wanted, but a defensive lapse brought Brighton back level 17 minutes later. A short corner flew in from the right, and with Arsenal's defense alarmingly unprepared, Ashley Barnes nodded the ball into the net ahead of the late-reacting Szczesny.
Giroud gave Arsenal another lead in the 56th minute, this time latching onto Abou Diaby's finely weighted lob over the top of Brighton's defense. After pulling the ball down with his left foot, Giroud beat Ankergren with another expert finish.
It was a goal that conjured the memory of the departed Robin van Persie, and though it's still unfair to compare the two, one can only believe Giroud when he says there's more to come (via ESPN FC).
6 - Olivier Giroud has scored six goals in his last eight games (in all comps) for Arsenal, including four in his last two. Potent.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 26, 2013
Brighton leveled again after another piece of poor defending. Santos failed to pressure the cross from his side, and Per Mertesacker—serving as captain for the day—failed to position himself goalside of Jose Ulloa, who headed home with some ease.
At that, Wenger was forced to introduce Wilshere and Walcott. The latter scored the winner with a deflected shot five minutes from time, and though Wenger will have wanted to keep both out entirely, their participation was the price he had to pay for victory.
Looking back at the end of the season, it might just turn out to be a bargain. After an up-and-down performance against what should have been an utterly outmatched side, Arsenal remain alive in the FA Cup, and both young stars remain essentially fresh.
For Giroud, it's 13 goals and nine assists now in his first season in England. Even now he can't compare to his predecessor in Arsenal's attack, but that has always been beside the point. With each match and each goal produced, he repays a bit of the faith Wenger showed in him last summer.
And for Arsenal, it's a win regardless of all else and progress despite a blip or two along the way.