SO back to reality Middlesbrough go.
They’re good, arguably the Championship’s best, but they are no match for the mesmerising plethora of talents that teams such as Arsenal possess.
Their 2-0 FA Cup fourth round win against Premier League title holders Manchester City would counter that claim but on Sunday evening normality was resumed.
The Premier League, the competition Boro crave to return to and might well realise that ambition in May, triumphed over the plucky yet talented Championship.
World Cup winner Mesut Ozil and £35m man Alexis Sanchez highlighted the class between the sides.
Boro, just like at City, set up with a sponge and rinse tactic: soak up Arsenal pressure and attack with pace from Albert Adomah and Patrick Bamford assisting Lee Tomlin and Kike.
That never happened.
Arsenal’s passing was intuitive, imaginative and sharp, slicing through the Teesside barricades how and when they liked.
The Gunners used the entirety of the pristine Emirates pitch, refusing to spare any Boro player from being outclassed.
George Friend, having had overtures from Premier League sides just last month, suffered. He was not the only one.
Boro recorded a season-low – a Karanka-low – on the attacking ambition barometer.
Boro’s attacking ambition rested solely on wishful long balls to Kike. The Spaniard, devoid of support on his flanks, couldn’t retain possession.
Lee Tomlin, lauded by so many for his display against City, was a pale of his usual self. He never once got on the ball and created.
But it would be unfair to pick at Boro because Arsenal were supremely dominant and majestically beautiful to watch at times.
Ozil switched wings, darted around Boro’s black shirts and located tiny spaces of which to engineer moves from.
Boro bodies were little more than training ground obstacles to manoeuvre around on occasions.
Aitor Karanka prowled the touchline, leaned to his left with his hands in his pockets. For a man who given Boro so much hope that they can return to the top tier this was as disconsolate and helpless as he has ever looked.
The Teessiders’ undoing began in earnest, cup goalkeeper Tomas Mejias diving to his left to keep a Santi Cazorla free-kick at bay.
Mejias, impenetrable against City, was just as keen on stopping the Gunners but he occasionally exorcised the ghosts of the past, spilling simple shots and not catching with assurance. The first incident of the like occurred in the 14th minute when Olivier Giroud’s tame shot was parried away.
Three minutes before the half-hour mark and Arsenal found the breakthrough with a captivating, defence-splitting, ingenious passage of play.
Cazorla played a one-two with Danny Welbeck on the edge of the box, the Spaniard then piercing a gap through the Boro defence to find Kieran Gibbs on the left of the box.
The marauding full-back cut the ball back where Giroud was waiting to flick beyond Mejias.
Groans barely ended and the hosts had doubled their lead. Sanchez played a corner to the front-post, Giroud left his marker Friend and nipped in behind Kike to steer a volley past Mejias.
Mutterings that Bradford City were 2-0 down against Chelsea in the previous round inevitably reverberated. But a comeback to rival the Bantams’ never looked like materialising.
Early in the second-half Friend was drew out of defence, the prospect of building a Boro counter alluring.
He was disposed, the excellent Calum Chambers teed up Welbeck on the right who trickled into the box and squared a pass across the face of the goal but no red and white shirts were waiting.
Ozil shot at Mejias after a wonderful first touch set him up and took the ball away from Omeruo, before Gibbs demanded a save from the Spanish stopper after Giroud cushioned the ball into the full-back’s trail.
Ozil had handed the baton of control over to Sanchez in the second-half, the Chilean wizard almost adding a third but his header was saved by Mejias.
Cazorla hit the ball over from an Arsenal counter and sub Theo Walcott was denied by Mejias amidst Boro creating their two best chances of the game.
Adomah fired wide from the edge of the box and Kike’s header repelled off the post. The consolation goal didn’t eventuate in these two 90+ minute chances.
Atone for this defeat and performance next season? In a Premier League game? That’s Karanka’s aspirations.