Relief for Arsene Wenger as Arsenal advance

FA Cup fifth round
Sutton 0 Arsenal 2
Gunners progress to FA Cup quarter-finals to ease pressure on troubled Arsene Wenger. 

The embattled and brow-beaten Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger finally has some breathing space after his side navigated a potential FA Cup banana skin at Sutton United with a nervy but decisive 2-0 victory that, temporarily at least, takes him out of the firing line.

Goals from Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott, the 100th of an Arsenal career which has already spanned 10 years, secured a place in the quarter-finals against Lincoln City at the Emirates and prevented the kind of ugly headlines which would surely have greeted Wenger if things had gone wrong.

“We did the job,” Wenger said. 

“It is very different I must say on this kind of pitch. It was not an easy game at all. We have to give them credit because every error we made they took advantage of on this pitch. They played very well.

“It is basically division five and when I arrived here 20 years ago in division five they were not as fit physically as they were today. 

"They were organised and had a huge desire. If we were not mentally prepared we would not have gone through today.”

The result also ended what has been an enthralling and entertaining FA Cup fifth round in which Sutton were hoping to join National League rivals Lincoln and League One Millwall as giantkillers; and it gives Arsenal some thinking time as they consider how best to keep their season alive.

Arsenal players celebrate after Theo Walcott scored their second goal against Sutton in last night’s FA Cup fifth round clash. Picture: Clive Rose
Arsenal players celebrate after Theo Walcott scored their second goal against Sutton in last night’s FA Cup fifth round clash. Picture: Clive Rose

The Gunners have no game this weekend – they were due to play League Cup finalists Southampton so the match is postponed – but face Liverpool away and Bayern Munich at home in the space of four frantic days at the start of March, a week in which Wenger’s future will once again be discussed.

In terms of pure romance, however, you probably couldn’t get a better FA Cup story than this meeting of giants and minnows and the anticipation in the air in Surrey was tangible not just on the terraces but in the press box too. 

A non-league side (17th in the National League) playing at a very non-league ground, artificial pitch and all, up against the giants of Arsenal who have won two of the last three FA Cups. 

Not only that but Arsenal, who arrived late at the ground after getting stuck in London traffic, visited the legendary conquerors of Coventry City in 1989 on the back of a crisis that threatens to engulf manager Wenger following a 5-1 defeat at Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Not surprisingly the Frenchman fielded a strong tema, but did make seven changes with Walcott coming in as the lone striker – he was also handed the captain’s armband – and Alexis Sanchez left on the bench until late on.

“It would be absolutely unexplainable and inexcusable not to take the game seriously,” Wenger said before kick-off.

Wenger admits he lost sleep after Munich, but he must also have been painfully aware there was far more to be lost here in a match that was, against the yellow-clad Sutton, the biggest banana skin of them all.

No such problems for the non-leaguers, who include former Gunners Craig Eastmond, Roarie Deacon, Jeffrey Monakana and Jack Jebb in their squad. 

They were simply relishing the spotlight which hasn’t always been around since the heady of days of ‘89.

On the face it not much has changed here since that romantic era, although health and safety rules mean the capacity is 5,000 instead of the 14,000 who packed in almost 30 years ago when benches were borrowed from Surrey Cricket Club and placed in front of the barriers Sutton did the best to make the most of home advantage, however, watering their plastic pitch to such an extend that Arsenal’s nervy players slipped and slided everywhere in the opening 15 minutes as passes went astray and neither side created chances.

But once Granit Xhaka found Lucas Perez out in space on the right after 26 minutes the game changed. The striker cut inside and drilled a low shot-cum-cross into the net from distance, Walcott just failing to get a foot on it before the ball flew past keeper Ross Worner.

For Sutton, who had at least threatened through the pace of ex-Arsenal player Deacon, it was always going to be the start of the end – but they could, and perhaps should, have equalised before half-time when Ospina sent a clearance straight to Adam May but the midfielder fired wide. 

The non-league side, who nevertheless did themselves proud, were made to pay when Walcott swept home after good work by Monreal and Iwobi 10 minutes into the second half, rewarding Wenger’s faith in a player who has been at the club for almost half his reign.

How long that reign remains intact is still a massive question. 

This was at times a nervous performance against a Sutton team which fought to the end – with man of the match Deacon smashing a shot against the crossbar as they suddenly rocked Wenger’s side late on.

But the Arsenal manager, not non-leagured this time but still beleaguered, can at least look forward to a quiet week – and they have been few and far between.

SUTTON: Worner 6, Amankwaah 7, Downer 7, Collins 7, Beckwith 6 (Spence 70;6), Deacon 8, Bailey 7, Eastmund 7, May 6 (Hudson-Odoi 72; 6), Gomis 6, Biamou 7 (Fitchett 82).

ARSENAL: Ospina 5; Gabriel 6, Mustafi 6, Holding 6, Monreal 7; Elneny 5 (Oxlade Chambelain 46; 7) , Xhaka 7, Lucas 7, Reine-Adelaide 6 (Maitland-Niles 74; 6), Iwobi 6 (Sanchez 74; 6), Walcott 7.

Referee: Michael Oliver


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