Sunderland preview: time to react

As upsetting, gutting, dismaying and frustrating as Wednesday night was, it’s now time to put it to rest. Perhaps Sunderland isn’t exactly the FA Cup tie we’d have liked after such a demoralising midweek escapade but we can’t do anything about that other than pick ourselves up and make sure we come away from this evening’s game satisfied with the result and knowing we’ve got a place in the next round.

In terms of today’s team, I expect some changes. If we’d won in Milan I’d have expected changes too, some players rested with half an eye on next week’s North London derby, but today changes will be made not to rest certain players but because you cannot do anything different after the way some of them played in midweek.

Fabianski, the cup keeper, will start ahead of Szczesny. At the back the manager has confirmed that we’ll miss Per Mertesacker ‘long term’, which is a real blow. He’s had surgery on his ankle and Robin van Persie, who suffered a similar injury and had a similar operation, was close to five months out. With Laurent Koscielny also missing it’ll mean Djourou and Vermaelen in the centre of the defence, surely flanked by Sagna and Gibbs. And the deliciousness of the Arsenal injury situation is summed up here – lose our first choice centre-half pairing having just got our full backs fit again … great.

The midfield was ineffective in Milan, and I do wonder if he might change things around in here a bit. I’d be quite tempted to play Coquelin ahead of Song, have Arteta keep things ticking and Benayoun in the more forward role. He’s not convinced me he’s a starter but if he can’t get a chance after Milan when can he?

Up front van Persie must start. If Chamakh and Park aren’t even worthy of a place on the bench for our last two games then they’re certainly not worthy of starting a game which provides a path to Arsenal’s only chance of silverware this season. If Robin is in the red zone, I’m afraid that’s your fault Arsene, for not having augmented the squad properly in the summer and at all in January beyond the loan signing of the now departed Thierry Henry.

Either side of him are Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, replacing Walcott, and either Gervinho or Arshavin on the left. The manager says Gervinho could benefit from getting straight back into first team action:

He was very down when I spoke with him on Monday, now he is better and hopefully he can contribute on Saturday.

We don’t know [what impact the Africa Cup of Nations will have]. I see Yaya Toure played on Thursday night for Manchester City and sometimes the best thing to get things out of your system is to play a game and have a performance. When you are young it is important to focus on the next game and show you are a good player.

While I feel sorry for him that he missed that penalty in the ACoNoACoNiA final but if it becomes a thing, a millstone around his neck which impacts his club performances, then that sympathy will disappear very, very quickly indeed. You’re a professional football, get over, and it was mostly Drogba’s fault for missing in normal time anyway. Let’s hope whatever pain he is feeling is aided by him having a storming second half of the season for us.

If he’s not quite physically ready, after the travel and the tournament, then he’d be an effective sub to have if the Russian were to start the game. So, Arsene’s got choices, particularly once you go beyond the defence which picks itself. He’s got to find the balance between our need to win the game and the need to demonstrate to certain players that the level of performance we saw against Milan was not acceptable. And, he says, we need a reaction:

Disappointments are a part of the game but we had previously always found the resources to get up again when it was down. That is what’s at stake tomorrow.

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

And at least there’s that recognition of the importance of today’s game. You can still argue about whether the cup is less important than a top four finish but the two are not, and never have been, mutually exclusive. Going for the FA Cup does not preclude scrapping for the top four – but today’s game takes on even more significance because of what happened at the San Siro.

Yes, we need to react, restore some pride, put things right and all that, but most importantly we’ve got to win an FA Cup game against a team that are going to make life very difficult for us. No doubt O’Neill has been out on the pitch all week, leaping around like a brain damaged ballet dancer wearing 8 inch stilettos to gouge and plough and pockmark the surface. They worked extremely hard last week after playing 120 minutes in midweek, they’ll be fresher this week having had no game since last weekend’s late defeat to us. This is going to be extremely tough today, make no mistake.

Yet, if we work hard, if we play as well as we’re capable of (albeit not on a consistent basis – our biggest flaw, in my opinion), then there’s no reason why we can’t come away from tonight’s game with a result. I’m sure their pride has been stung too and you have to hope that from a professional point of view they want to show that they’re better than they appeared against Milan. If there’s motivation already, from the point of view of this being the only trophy in our sights, and just the fact that this is the next game, then everything else, the manager’s hair-dryer and simply wanting to put things right will see a much more acceptable Arsenal performance.

Anything like Milan, anything like the passivity, the lack of effort and the sheer carelessness of that performance and we’re going out of the cup today. You have to just hope that lightning doesn’t strike twice … in one week.

Thierry Henry has gone, with a message for the fans to get behind the team, which is great and I know where he’s coming from. But even Arsene Wenger said after the Bolton game that it was up to players to lift the fans. It works both ways, of course, but today they must take the lead and show that they want to do better for this club.

Kick off later isn’t till 5.15pm, stupid ITV, and as usual we’ll have live blog coverage of the game if you can’t see it. You can follow it on your phone, computer, iPad, iPid, iPud and iPéd, so check back later for another post with all the details. Or you can just bookmark the default live blog page and it’ll automatically update when things start happening.

And betting as always via Paddy Power who have a special for today’s game: If Sunderland score first but Arsenal win, Paddy Power will refund all losing 1st/last goalscorer, correct score and scorecast singles.

Sunderland score first? Pfff, unlikely. Oh. Anyway, if you fancy a flutter and up to £50 in a free bet, click here to register with Paddy Power.

Right, that’s yer lot. Have a good Saturday and catch you later for the game.

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