On Sunday, Aaron Ramsey underlined the extra dimension Arsenal have missed for much of the second half of this season, as he provided the spark for his side in a comfortable 3-0 win over Hull City.
In a dress rehearsal for next month’s FA Cup Final, the Gunners proved a cut above their hosts, with Ramsey scoring the opener and then turning provider for two Lukas Podolski goals as Arsene Wenger’s side ultimately cruised to victory.
Mesut Ozil, returning for his first start after an injury, was a less influential presence as the North London club moved four points clear in the race for fourth.
Nevertheless, his and Ramsey's presence in such a clinical display made it hard not to wonder if Arsenal might still be in the title race had they been available more frequently in recent months.
Ramsey thigh injury did indeed prove to be game changer in title race. Form on return proves he's most important #AFC player (if not best)— Wayne Veysey (@wayneveysey) April 20, 2014
Afterwards, Ramsey said (via BBC):
It feels good to be back and hopefully I can put in more good performances before the end of the season. They are a well-organised side who get the ball wide, put crosses in and are dangerous. But we scored some good counter-attacking goals.
We have beaten Hull twice this season, but it is a Cup final and you cannot take anything for granted, but we will go into that game confident in our ability.
We will go into that game with confidence, and if we do well at the end of this season it could be our most successful for many years.
Everton face Manchester United later Sunday, needing a win to keep up the pressure on Arsenal in the race for that last Champions League qualification spot.
In truth, it only fleetingly looked as if Arsenal might hand the Toffees any reason for increased optimism.
Hull started the game—which was briefly delayed after high winds blew advertising hoardings onto the pitch at the KC Stadium—brightly and even hit the post midway through the first half thanks to Jake Livermore.
At that point, however, they were already behind, as Ramsey stamped his authority on the game.
The move for the opening goal was both started and finished by the Welshman, who took the ball on the halfway line and turned expertly away from his man before offloading and making a run for the box.
6 - Aaron Ramsey has scored six away goals in the PL this season, twice as many as he managed in his 5 previous seasons combined. Adventure.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 20, 2014
Olivier Giroud, Ozil and Santi Cazorla all took touches before the Spaniard controlled on the edge of the box and returned the ball to the onrushing Ramsey, who breezed past Curtis Davies into the area before side-footing his shot perfectly across the goalkeeper into the far corner.
The game up to that point had been characterised by a number of strong tackles, with Mikel Arteta even appearing to lose a tooth in a somewhat accidental collision with Shane Long.
There was also controversy in the buildup to Arsenal’s second goal, as the home side felt strongly that Arteta had fouled Nikica Jelavic before the visitors began their counter.
The home side may well have had a case—although Jelavic did appear to go down easily—but Arsenal showed no remorse. Ozil and Giroud bombed forward and interplayed nicely, as the Frenchman then crossed for Ramsey at the far post.
Ramsey chested down the delivery, but before he could take a second touch, Podolski ran in and emphatically thumped a volley low past Steve Harper.
The German had another chance to show his cutting edge and grab his fourth goal in two league games shortly into the second half. This time, the finish was more straightforward, Podolski turning home the rebound after Ramsey’s close-range effort had been palmed away by the embattled Harper.
From that point, Arsenal were cruising, with Giroud, Ramsey and Per Mertesacker going remarkably close to a fourth as Wenger’s side gradually let the air out of a contest that rather meandered to a conclusion.
An injury to Giroud, who was substituted for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, may be a concern for Wenger going forward. Steve Bruce experienced a similar situation, as Long proved unable to return for the second half.
Both managers will hope their strikers are available by the time the next meeting, at Wembley, comes around—although Bruce is unlikely to try the two-striker system he started with in this one again.
It was an experiment that failed, and Arsenal can now sit back and see whether Everton can keep pace with them as another battle for European participation heads towards its climax.
Arsenal's next game sees them host struggling Newcastle on April 28, while Hull City travel to West London to face relegation-threatened Fulham at Craven Cottage.