Arsene Wenger’s wish for a more upbeat start to the new year was fulfilled as his Arsenal side booked their place in the FA Cup fourth round with a 3-1 victory over Plymouth Argyle thanks to two goals from Robin Van Persie on Saturday.
The victory may not have been as slick as Wenger would have liked, but anxious to avoid an embarrassing slip, the result at the Emirates Stadium was all that mattered to the Gunners manager.
Wenger admitted before the game that last year had been a miserable one for Arsenal. Serious injuries to key players, reports of dressing room in-fighting and a failure once again to challenge for the Premier League title have created an air of uncertainty at the club.
And Wenger’s growing list of problems increased this week when he was forced to admit experienced defender Kolo Toure is unsettled, whilst denying the center-back is set to join Manchester City.
Toure was missing, reportedly with a groin injury, fueling speculation he could yet leave, but Wenger’s concern against Plymouth was simply that Arsenal retain interest in a competition they last won in 2005 — their last trophy triumph.
The way Samir Nasri tormented Plymouth left-back Chris Barker in the opening couple of minutes suggested Wenger’s side would make light work of what was on a paper a routine tie.
That view was reinforced when Aaron Ramsay set up Van Persie and Emmanuel Eboue, who were both denied by excellent saves from Argyle keeper Roman Larrieu.
In fact it was largely because of Larrieu’s impressive start that the Championship side grew in confidence and began to make inroads of their own.
Wenger had handed a first start of the season to second choice keeper Lukasz Fabianski, having 24 hours earlier denied comments made by Shay Given’s representative that the Gunners were interested in signing the Newcastle United No. 1.
But Fabianski did little to justify his manager’s faith when he spilled an early cross that gifted Plymouth midfielder Chris Clark a chance that could have given the visitors a shock lead.
The Pole later went on to make a much bigger gaffe in the build-up to Karl Duguid’s goal.
But any fears of an upset were quickly removed as Wenger’s side sped into a two-goal lead within three minutes of the restart.
The manner in which the home side took the lead will have been particularly infuriating for Argyle manager Paul Sturrock, who looked on as his side completely lost concentration at a 46th minute corner and allowed Van Persie — captain for the day in the absence of Manuel Almunia — a free header just 6m out.
And worse was to follow two minutes later when Van Persie’s low cross was turned into his own net by David Gray under pressure from the lurking Nicklas Bendtner.
If Plymouth were to have any chance of salvaging something from the tie it was imperative they forced their way back into the game quickly.
That was exactly what they did thanks to Fabianski’s failure to deal with a floated free-kick three minutes later that allowed Gray to pull the ball back for Duguid, who finished left-footed from 10m out.
That, though, was the beginning and the end of Argyle’s fightback and Van Persie wrapped things up after rounding Larrieu six minutes from time.