The Guardian: By Nick Ames at Kassam Stadium – As third round ties go this went by the numbers. Oxford United gave Arsenal a game for an hour, without threatening to make things more interesting than that, and could draw on enough positives to hope for a bright end to their third-tier campaign. The Premier League leaders eventually bucked up and picked them off with three goals in 13 minutes, meaning this went down as a job well done and banishing the looming spectre of a replay.
All three of Arsenal’s goals were created by Fabio Vieira, whose display epitomised that of the collective. Nothing went right for the Portuguese schemer, who is expected to impress on his rare starting gigs as Martin Ødegaard’s deputy, before half-time but he was ultimately their matchwinner. A devilish free-kick delivery gave Mohamed Elneny the opener on a plate before two slide-rule passes let Eddie Nketiah put matters beyond doubt with the kinds of finish that are his stock in trade.
There was also the relief, six days before the north London derby, that Bukayo Saka had avoided serious harm. Mikel Arteta had picked what is, at least in the absence of Gabriel Jesus, his first choice front three and it appeared a costly decision when the player he can least afford to lose hobbled off before the third goal. But he confirmed afterwards that Saka was “fine”, meaning Arsenal emerged unscathed on all fronts.
Eddie Nketiah rounds Oxford United’s Eddie McGinty to score his first and Arsenal’s second goal – Ashley Western/Colorpsort/REX/Shutterstock
It meant the return of Emile Smith Rowe, who replaced Saka, had no bittersweet tinge. Arsenal need depth for their title challenge and, while they hope to enlist the Shakhtar Donetsk forward Mykhaylo Mudryk, their options will be significantly improved if they can keep Smith Rowe fit. He had a half-chance to score during his cameo; the finish was rusty but that was to be expected after four months out.
“We’re going to need him,” Arteta said. It certainly looked that way during a tedious opening period in which Oxford, compact out of possession and useful enough on it, held Arsenal at arm’s length. There were few chances to speak of, an Nketiah jab over the bar and a blocked Albert Sambi Lokonga drive that brought frenzied screams for handball the pick of them, and League One’s 15th-placed side were consistently sharper to the ball. Cameron Brannagan barged Kieran Tierney out of the way and Ciaron Brown, a rangy left-back, left Saka in a heap. Both challenges were hard but fair.
There was precious little, though, to excite the pair of fans who had climbed on top of a van to watch proceedings from the car park behind the goal Oxford attacked. They are not long for this three-sided stadium, which they must leave by 2026 due to the expiration of their license agreement, and could not quite make this a night to remember it by. Their centre-forward, Matty Taylor, provided the obligatory minor scare when he could not prod past Matt Turner shortly after the break but that was the sum of their opportunities.
Arteta had just deployed Granit Xhaka and Oleksandr Zinchenko in an effort to wrest some control, which had been sorely lacking, when Gabriel Martinelli was fouled by Djavan Anderson. “I’m not too sure whether it was a free-kick,” the Oxford manager Karl Robinson said. “I just heard the scream; it must have been a bad tackle to be that loud.” Vieira and Elneny were not about to quibble; the latter flung himself to head his first goal since May 2021 and the hosts’ fire was extinguished.
“We got a little bit giddy and committed far too many forward,” Robinson said of Oxford’s attempts to equalise. “But our players can hold their heads up and be proud of some of their play.” It was Nketiah who could smile, though, after finding acres of space behind the defensive line from Vieira’s pass and rounding Eddie McGinty before doing the rest. Soon enough the combination was repeated, Nketiah this time finishing with a cool dink while Saka was slowly making his way around the perimeter, and the latter stages were an exercise in playing out time.
“That’s his quality, to create goals and decide games in the final third,” Arteta said of Vieira. “He contributed in a big way to win this game.” So did Nketiah, who has scored four in four since being pressed into regular action and was described by his manager as “getting better and better”. Further improvement may be needed if Arsenal are to overcome Manchester City in the fourth round, but this was an assignment ticked off neatly.
Top Feature Photo: Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny scores their first goal – John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters