PRIOR to the match Lincoln manager Danny Cowley contemplated “the biggest upset in the history of the greatest cup competition in the world”.
Such has been Arsenal’s recent poor form, one half-wondered whether he was talking about the prospect of Arsenal beating Lincoln as opposed to the other way round.
Thumped 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and with the future of manager Arsene Wenger in doubt, Arsenal had lost five of their previous seven games to heap pressure on the beleaguered Frenchman.
Sadly for Cowley and his players, roared on by around 9,000 fans, the National League leaders were unable to bridge a gap of 88 places to the 12-times cup winners as they slipped to a convincing but courageous defeat.
Realistically, the best that Lincoln could have hoped for was heroic failure.
The first non-league club to reach the quarter-finals since 1914, after they knocked out league opposition in the form of Oldham, Ipswich, Brighton and Burnley, they certainly failed heroically on Saturday evening.
Despite the score, Lincoln played their hearts out as their fans sang their hearts out in the red-and-white bedecked Clock End behind the goal.
There was no shame in losing 5-0 to the side fifth in the Premier League on their own ground, particularly after Wenger fielded his strongest possible team, admitting: “I didn’t want to gamble.”
Had Lincoln held out until half-time, as had seemed likely with the score still goalless going into six added minutes, a crowd of 59,454 might have witnessed “the biggest upset in the history of the greatest cup competition in the world” after all.
As it was, Theo Walcott scored in the first added minute, a right-footed shot from 10 yards taking a cruel deflection past the excellent Paul Farman into the bottom left-hand corner.
To say that Arsenal scarcely deserved their lead was an understatement.
Walcott had hit a post via Farman’s outstretched left hand, but there had been little else for the home fans to cheer, their groans of frustration barely audible amid the ceaseless cacophony of noise emanating from the away end.
Indeed, Lincoln had come agonisingly close to a 29th-minute lead, Nathan Arnold drawing a fine diving save from Petr Cech as he curled a left-footed effort to the goalkeeper’s right.
Yet Walcott’s goal was a match-changing moment, and Arsenal’s class told as they dismantled Lincoln in the second half with an intoxicating blend of pacy passing and mesmeric movement.
Olivier Giroud coolly added a second in the 53rd minute, slotting home from close range after neat approach work from Alexis Sanchez and Hector Bellerin, and the hosts scored a third in the 58th when Kieran Gibbs’s cross from the left byline was touched into his own net by Lincoln captain Luke Waterfall.
After that, with their players leg-weary and emotionally spent, Lincoln’s task became purely one of damage limitation.
The Imps became carved open almost at will, conceding a fourth in the 73rd minute when Sanchez curled home right-footed after Bradley Wood missed a challenge on the edge of the area, and a fifth two minutes later when Aaron Ramsey walked the ball into the net after Alex Woodyard’s misplaced pass played in Sanchez, who was operating in a galaxy far removed from the telescopic lens of the National League.
A heavier defeat would have been cruel on Lincoln, whose supporters were touchingly applauded at the end of the game by Walcott and Francis Coquelin, who sportingly made a point of going over to the Clock End.
At the same time, Cowley gathered his players in the centre circle to tell them not to dwell on the pain of defeat, but rather to reflect on and celebrate a remarkable journey that had begun with a fourth qualifying round win against Guiseley.
After delivering his words, this impressive young manager then ushered his own men towards the Clock End, where they received a rapturous ovation from the travelling fans.
“We are top of the league, say we are top of the league,” they chanted long into the north London night, a reminder that while the cup run has been a fairytale, the main priority is the recovery of Football League status.
Arsenal: Cech, Gibbs, Koscielny, Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud (Lucas 65), Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ozil 27), Mustafi, Bellerin, Xhaka (Coquelin 60). Unused substitutes: Gabriel, Iwobi, Monreal, Martinez.
Lincoln City: Farman, Wood, Habergham, Waterfall, Muldoon (Margetts 54), Power, Rhead (Ward 65), Hawkridge (Marriott 77), Raggett, Arnold, Woodyard. Unused substitutes: McMenemy, McCombe, Calder, Etheridge.
Referee: A Taylor (Manchester).