By Richard Clarke at the Stadium of Light
Arsenal are out of the FA Cup.
Arsène Wenger’s side went down 2-0 at Sunderland thanks to Kieran Richardson’s cross-shot just before the break and an own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 13 minutes from full-time.
There were elements ill-fortune over both. The first found the corner thanks to deflection and the second was stumbled over the line by the backtracking Arsenal midfielder. But few could deny that Sunderland were still worthy winners on the day.
The visitors played a full part in a full-bloodied cup tie but they could not summon a victory to banish the memory of that midweek defeat in Milan.
Barring an incredible fightback in the second leg on March 6, Arsenal’s season is now all about the Premier League.
Wenger had promised to freshen up his side after the comprehensive defeat in Italy. In the end, he made five changes – some enforced, some not.
Lukasz Fabianski, Francis Coquelin, Johan Djourou, Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain all came in Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Laurent Koscielny, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky.
It has been an arduous week already and the Arsenal manager clearly thought his side needed an injection of energy.
Sunderland’s crowd was significantly down on the previous week’s Premier League game but the visiting contingent was virtually the same. The Arsenal supporters had taken advantage of £5 coach trips laid on by the Club.
As they have all season, Wenger’s team travelled with a healthly vocal backing.
And their team gave them something to shout about it in opening stages.
Until Coquelin went off, the visitors were vibrant. However the nearest they came to goal was when Arteta whipped a free-kick just wide.
But in the seventh minute, Arsenal lost a defender for the third successive game. Coquelin pulled up close to the same spot on which Per Mertesacker had crumpled into a heap a week earlier. The Frenchman’s game was over and Sebatien Squillaci came on for his first game since Fulham on January 2.
The change sucked the early impetus out of Arsenal and Sunderland started to pressurise. Stephane Sessignon went through and curled an effort just wide of the far post then Fabianski did well to hold on to James McClean’s driven cross.
The home crowd began to sense a goal as the game went end-to-end. But although Sunderland were on top, Arsenal would have their moments.
Just before the half-hour, Robin van Persie released Gervinho. The Ivorian, who was the visitors’ brightest attacking outlet so far, jinked himself so space and rifled in a shot that Simon Mignolet did well to push over the bar.
In the 32nd minute, Arsenal thought they might have had a penalty when Song’s perceptive pass released Van Persie in the area momentarily. Replays suggested John O’Shea had got his toe to the ball before he brought down the Dutch striker.
It seemed that Arsenal had forced their way back to parity in a cup tie that was starting to simmer. However they would end the half badly.
Five minutes before half-time, Djourou hauled down Craig Gardner and, though Vermaelen cleared Larsson’s free-kick, Richardson returned the ball with interest.
Typical of Arsenal’s fortune right now, the full-back’s effort would have drifted wide but for a deflection of Vermaelen’s arm. In fact, it found the far corner.
Arsenal were rattled and Sunderland sensed a second. They nearly got it when Larsson’s deep cross was nodded back at far post by Jack Colback and McClean prodded the ball into the sidenetting.
Sunderland started the second half in similar fashion. Sagna took out McClean just outside the area and Larsson planted his free-kick on to the top of the net.
Ramsey had stayed out during the break, presumably to test out a knock. Clearly the answer was negative as the Welshman limped off within 10 minutes of the restart. Rosicky came on.
Squillaci was wincing as he went on off and Walcott came on. Song dropped into central defence while the Englishman went up front with Van Persie tucked in behind.
This was cup football and Wenger had set up his side to go for it. The changes would help their cause.
Arsenal suddenly looked to have a better balance and pushed forward. Van Persie whipped a low free-kick just wide as the visitors started to pen back the home side as they had done a week ago. However they were having trouble prising open to Sunderland defence.
Vermaelen’s cross was inches too high for Van Persie then the Belgian’s header was plucked out of the air by Mignolet.
Arsenal’s increasing ambition left them open to the counter and Sunderland profited 13 minutes from time.
Sessignon shrugged off Arteta led the breakaway. The Frenchman prodded a pass to Larsson on the right. His shot bounced off the inside of the post, ran across the goalline and the backtracking Oxlade-Chamberlain inadvertently scuffed the ball over the line.
As with the first goal, there was an element of ill-fortune. But it seems that is just Arsenal’s lot at the moment.
Rosicky drove forward to set up Van Persie but the Dutchman hoisted his shot over the bar. In the final minute, Arteta cracked an effort just over the bar.
But Sunderland had more than done enough on the day.
Referee: Howard Webb
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