Pre-Match Report

FA Cup: Sunderland v Arsenal - Preview

By Richard Clarke

Suddenly the FA Cup has a new significance for Arsenal.

Because it is now the team's best chance of the silverware this season.

Because the eyes of the footballing world feel like they are focused on the Club right now.

And, most importantly, simply because Saturday's Fifth Round tie at Sunderland is first game after Milan.

The 4-0 defeat at the San Siro in midweek was like being broadsided by runaway driver when you are just starting to work through the gears en route to your destination.

So this weekend's fixture is all about bashing out the dents.

Forget the quality for now, just feel the result. And get back into shape for the rest of the campaign.

Arsène Wenger wants a response to the Italian job that was done on his team in midweek. He got one last Saturday at the Stadium of Light when Arsenal came back from 1-0 in the final 15 minutes to steal a victory that elevated them to fourth in the Premier League once the weekend's fixtures were completed.

Thierry Henry's 90th-minute winner was typical of the talismanic striker's six-week loan spell. And it was left to him to put the current situation into proper perspective. The day after the Milan result and the day before he returned to New York, he told Arsenal Player that those who looked back on his previous spell at the Club as some sun-drenched utopia were suffering from selective perception. The dizzying highs had been matched with insufferable lows and, as he pointed out, the FA Cup was the silver anvil upon which the 'Invincibles' had been forged. The Frenchman argued that the Finals in 2001, 2002 and 2003, two of which were victorious, led to the unbeaten season the following year.

In typically strenuous fashion, Henry also suggested this famous old trophy was worth more than an afterthought.

His now former manager concurred with the view - even though he argued its value had increased after Wednesday night.

"It is more important now," said Wenger. "It was always important but, because we had a big disappointment in the last game, it becomes more important.

"The Champions League and FA Cup can collide a bit and, schedule-wise, you see that again this year - you go to Milan, you go to Sunderland. But especially after what happened on Wednesday night it is important to have a great performance.

"We are in fourth position and we have an opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It is important that we are up for it and do not feel sorry for ourselves because of that [one] performance.

"It can still be a positive week and we will see how we deal with the Milan game in the second leg later. What is important now, first of all, is not only the FA Cup but as well the response and the mental attitude of our team. They are at stake as well. That is something that is very important for us."

Wenger lost Per Mertesacker with a "long-term" ankle injury at Sunderland last weekend and Laurent Koscielny with a short-term knee injury at Milan.

Fortunately Kieran Gibbs came through his first game in four months with no problems. So the manager has few options for change at the back but has promised rotation elsewhere.

"I will refresh a bit because some players have played many games recently," he said. "But we will be full-strength."

Attacking football is deeply engrained in Wenger's DNA of course but he is certainly going all out on Saturday. The replay date is Tuesday, just five days before the North London derby at Emirates Stadium.

"Of course we will try to win the game, as we always do," he said. "If we have to go through a replay we will do it but ideally we would like to win the game in the first instance."

Last Saturday, Sunderland demonstrated the organisation and resilience that has seen them rise up the table since Martin O'Neill was appointed at the start of December. Yes they were penned back for much of the game and caught out late on but that was their fifth game in 13 tiring days. They have been resting for the last seven since then.

"I expect them to be more offensive this time," said Wenger. "They were maybe happy with a draw in the first game which you can understand because they have done so well recently. On Saturday I expect a bit more forward drive and it will be important we defend well. The pitch will be the same but they will be going for it more."

Offensively, two players stood for Sunderland last weekend. The first was James McClean who capitalised on Mertesacker's misfortune with an expert finish in the 70th minute. It added to the Irishman's out-of-nowhere reputation.

"It shows you that good scouting is still possible in Great Britain and that you can find young talents everywhere," said Wenger. "I am a great believer in that and a good pair of eyes can be very useful in a club."

The second was Stephane Sessegnon, who is having a masterful season as a withdrawn striker.

"We have to control him," admitted Wenger. "He is a guy who can make a difference because he has a good combination of power, technique and penetration. He is sure in his dribbling so he can always be a problem for you."

Arsenal could do without any more of those right now.

This week has already seen all four seasons of football's meteorology. The satisfied sunshine of the trip to Sunderland last weekend to the icy realisation in Milan that the Club's Champions League adventure was likely to be over for this season.

As Henry pointed out and Wenger knows all too well, the temperature can change again - and quickly.

"We have put together a good series of results and we can consider that night was just an off-day," he said. "Therefore we are focused on what we have done well recently because we go into a battle now in which we need confidence, belief and great commitment."

And, a simple, straightforward victory, of course.


Team News

Arsenal: Koscielny (knee), Diaby (hamstring), Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Jenkinson (back), Mertesacker (ankle)

Sunderland: Cattermole (doubt - hamstring) Bramble (calf), Gordon (knee), Vaughan (ankle), Brown (knee), Bendtner (ineligible)

Random Facts

Arsenal's FA Cup record against Sunderland reads: P7 W3 D1 L3

Robin van Persie has hit seven goals in his last nine FA Cup appearances

The last FA Cup between the two sides was a Third Round replay in 1997. The 2-0 included a virtuoso Dennis Bergkamp chip at Roker Park. The Dutchman famously celebrated by cupping his hand over his mouth.

Sessegnon is Sunderland's top scorer with seven goals. Van Persie has 28. 


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