Sunderland vs. Arsenal
FA Cup Fifth Round
Kickoff: 12:15 PM ET, Saturday, February 18
Estadio de Luz Stadium of Light, Sunderland, SR5 1SU
SBN Sunderland perspective: Roker Report
Form: Sun DWWWL | Ars WDWW
LTV Coverage: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Deportes
Arsenal travel the northeast of England for the second time in seven days to face off against Sunderland for the second time in seven days, this time in the fifth round of the Football Association ("FA") Cup. They will be looking to recover from something that happened on Wednesday...something...some...hmm. What was I saying? I cannot remember. But hey, at least they'll be playing on a decent pitch, again...[Thomas comes in to whisper something in my ear, leaves set again...] sorry. They're playing on the surface of Io, Jupiter's highly tectonic and closest moon.
What could possibly go wrong? Let's go below the jump and find out!
Let's just talk, for a moment, about the aftermath of Wednesday's Lombardian fiasco. First of all, Arsène Wenger was not happy about it, according to the Guardian:
Arsène Wenger unleashed a tirade at his Arsenal players on Thursday which startled some of them in its severity, as he sought to refocus minds following the club's Champions League humiliation at Milan.
The manager bolted shut the doors of the dressing room at the training ground before the squad's warm-down session to turn the air blue. Having repeatedly employed the carrot, this represented the use of a large stick and the players could not remember seeing him so incensed.Wenger had been quiet in the dressing room at San Siro after the 4-0 last-16 first-leg defeat...
So there's that. Wenger's sparing use of the swears and the yelling and the Herb Brooks-ing it up means that when he actually does use them, it probably is the most scary thing in the world, like when you make your mom cry and you're not quite sure why.
It remains to be seen, and we'll probably never really know, what effect it will have on the players tomorrow, and it will only have short-term implications. They're still the same players, and no amount of gee-ing them up will fix long-term problems the squad may have. In the short term, though, it at least indicates that Wenger is not ready to throw in the towel. Hopefully the players will realize that, despite Wenger's basically screwing the tactical pooch on Wednesday, they also did very little on their own out there, losing basically every single battle and generally forgetting how to play football, and they'll want to rectify things tomorrow.
Thierry Henry, though, thinks this team has what it takes to bounce back, and I believe him.
It is not going to be easy, though, as there are some injurious situations that limit Arsenal's options. As discussed on the blog this morning, Per Mertesacker is out for the forseeable future, having undergone surgery on his ankle, and Laurent Koscielny, while not out long-term, will not play tomorrow. Given that those two played well at the center of defense last weekend against the Black Cats, it is a big miss to lose them; Mertesacker's positional sense and aerial presence, together with Koscielny's incredible speed and aggression, were starting to keep attacks at bay. Now it's looking like Johan Djourou, who's trying to play himself back into form, and Thomas Vermaelen, who sometimes requires a steady covering presence behind him, will be the men in the middle. Flanking them will no doubt be Bacary Sagna, who had a horrible time in Milan, and Kieran Gibbs, who will be playing his second match back from a long-term injury.
What this suggests is two things: 1) poopie!, and 2) Alex Song will need some help. Part of me really wants to see Francis Coquelin in the midfield with him, but it'll probably be Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, like always. Wenger has to field a full-strength side (although at the moment, Ramsey still looks both tired and trying too hard to do things he shouldn't), but putting say, Tomas Rosicky in front of a double pivot maybe offers a little more right now. Coquelin, though, is fresh (so fresh, and so clean), and would be a useful player in the middle or maybe even at right back, where he can combine with Theo Walcott to great effect, in theory.
Speaking of Walcott, he'll want to put Wednesday behind him as much as anyone, but Kieran Richardson presents a challenge: a left back with pace and a real tendency to get forward sometimes will pin Walcott back a bit, and Sunderland's organization in defense means that Walcott will struggle to get around behind the defense, turn them, and fire cutbacks to Robin van Persie all day long. Nonetheless, it would be startling to see anyone but him start over there.
There are two options on the left: one is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, which like, yep. At this point, I wouldn't be mad to see him start anywhere in the attacking midfield for Arsenal, and it seems likely he'll start tomorrow.
However, there's also Gervinho. Gervinho is freshly back from Gabon, where he missed the penalty that meant Cote d'Ivoire lost the final to Zambia. Hopefully this won't damage his mentality (which, again, nobody can really know) too much, because if he plays tomorrow, it's a cup tie. Now, Gervinho is a little bit like Chamberlain in the sense that he can do something against packed defenses with his pace and dribbling, but his finishing and passing have at times been subpar. His tendency to cut in also means that he'll probably pair with Walcott on the right (as would Chamberlain's), since Walcott is at least a little willing to stay wide at times (though not in Milan at all, sadly).
Robin van Persie will start at center forward, because I'm honestly not sure that our other strikers even have boots anymore.
For Sunderland, Matthew Kilgallon is back in the picture at center half, although most of their other injured players are still out or doubtful in the extreme. Roker Report reckons Sebastian Larsson's full fitness will mean he moves back to the flanks, allowing Frazier Campbell to return to a more central striking position. This could spell trouble for an Arsenal back four that has played together -3 times this year.
Prediction: The Jabberwocky emerges from one of Io's volcanic fields to devour a clearly startled Simon Mignolet, and Sunderland have to play the rest of the match with no goalkeeper, and indeed, no goal at all, that having melted in the radiation from Jupiter and the solar wind. Arsenal win by default, 87 to e, retaining all future rights to matches on Io and other Galilean satellites.
Finally, in honor of Wenger's tirade and my own at my television on Wednesday night, here's this: