DRESS rehearsal for the Cup final? Let’s hope not, after Arsenal shattered Hull City’s hopes of being all but safe before the end of Easter with the type of incisive attacking play that once made Arsene Wenger’s side the scourge of the Premier League.
A Lukas Podolski double and Aaron Ramsey’s 16th goal of the season means the Tigers still probably require a point or even two to guarantee their own survival.
The abiding memory, however, of an entertaining contest that saw Hull impress hugely for 45 minutes will be the pace and poise of Arsenal when in full flow.
For the 25,000-plus Tigers fans who are set to descend on Wembley next month, the hope has to be that the Yorkshire club’s first FA Cup final will not see a repeat and that, instead, Steve Bruce’s men can display the killer instinct rather than the Londoners.
Certainly, there were grounds for optimism yesterday with Jake Livermore outstanding in midfield and Tom Huddlestone spraying the ball around delightfully in a first half that City bossed.
The flipside, though, was the space that Arsenal found in attack with Hull struggling to pick up the runners in a 4-2-3-1 formation that saw Olivier Giroud employed as a lone frontman in front of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Podolski.
When the Gunners broke at pace, something that happened for all three goals, City were badly exposed and it will be interesting to see if Steve Bruce employs different tactics – such as using son Alex as a protective barrier in front of the back four, as happened at West Ham recently – come May 17.
“I am not really interested in Wembley,” said Bruce, when asked if he had learned anything ahead of the final.
“Not just yet, anyway. We have to stay in this league and let Wembley look after itself. We have to make sure we get over the line.
“We are not safe yet and that means we still have work to do. That is all I am concentrating on.
“The weekend brought some unbelievable results and it is too close for comfort because the league is concertinaed. It is a quite remarkable league this year.
“As for the game, the scoreline suggests it was easy for Arsenal. But I thought our first-half performance was the best we had played for weeks.
“I thought our intensity was spot on and, when you look at it, we had the chances while Arsenal didn’t really threaten our goal. But then nine minutes after half-time, it is all over.”
On the balance of play and chances created, Hull could consider themselves unfortunate not to be in front at the break.
To instead be two goals behind, therefore, was hard to stomach, especially with the second of those being shrouded in controversy.
It came on the stroke of half-time, as Arsenal ruthlessly capitalised on a City attack breaking down when Nikica Jelavic fell to the floor under pressure from Mikel Arteta 15 yards inside the visitors’ half.
“Everyone in the ground expected a free-kick. It was a game-changing decision,” said Bruce afterwards.
Two passes later, Ramsey was chesting the ball down for Podolski to fire past Steve Harper from eight yards.
Hull immediately surrounded referee Jon Moss and demanded to know why no foul had been given against Arteta but the official rightly refused to be swayed.
The sense of injustice may have been misplaced due to there being little, if any, contact before Jelavic fell theatrically to the floor.
But there could be no denying that being behind was harsh on City after an opening 45 minutes in which they could – and maybe should – have had a couple of goals of their own.
Certainly, Shane Long should have done a lot better than slice a shot wide when played clear by a wonderful Livermore pass.
Jelavic, too, missed a gilt-edged opportunity when a quick free-kick played the Croat in and his left foot shot drew a good save from Wojciech Szczesny, while James Chester headed an inviting cross over.
Had either of those efforts gone in at a time when the score was goalless, the game could have turned out very differently.
Instead, Arsenal drew first blood through Ramsey just after the half-hour when a flowing move saw Ozil and Cazorla combine to find the Welsh international, whose first-time shot gave Harper no chance.
Hull’s response was admirable, as Livermore, their standout performer, struck the inside of a post with a drilled 20-yard effort before Long was unable to get a clean connection on an inviting Liam Rosenior cross.
Then, though, came the sublime move that ended with Podolski firing past Harper to send Arsenal in at the break two goals ahead.
Wenger’s side extended that advantage further nine minutes after the restart when Hull were again opened up and Podolski tapped in the rebound after Harper had brilliantly kept out Ramsey.
The game was up for Hull, who almost conceded a fourth on 65 minutes when Harper dithered when dealing with what was a routine back pass from Rosenior.
Giroud, awake to the danger, then charged down the veteran goalkeeper’s attempted clearance before firing against the crossbar from a tight angle.
Considering how well City had played in the first half, they probably deserved that slice of good fortune.
Come Wembley, however, Bruce’s men will have to be at their best for the full 90 minutes if the famous old trophy is to have a chance of heading to East Yorkshire.
Hull City: Harper; Elmohamady, Chester, Davies, Rosenior; Meyler, Huddlestone, Livermore, Boyd (Koren 85); Jelavic (Quinn 70), Long (Fryatt 46). Unused substitutes: Jakupovic, Figeuroa, Bruce, Sagbo.
Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta, Ramsey; Cazorla, Ozil (Flamini 61), Podolski (Sanogo 85); Giroud (Oxlade-Chamberlain 74). Unused substitutes: Fabianksi, Rosicky, Jenkinson, Kallstrom.