Barring a miracle in the Champions League, Arsenal will have to wait until 2013 to win a trophy after Sunderland ruthlessly dumped the Gunners out of the FA Cup with a 2-0 win at the Stadium of Light. A deflected Kieran Richardson effort gave Martin O’Neill’s men the lead before half-time, before an Alex Oxlade Chamberlain own goal compounded Arsene Wenger’s misery with fifteen minutes left on the clock.
Things looked to be going OK for five minutes. We controlled possession in the opening exchanges, knocking the ball around with confidence and showing no sign of a hangover from the rout in the San Siro. After great build up play Van Persie was taken down by a Sunderland man and Arteta lined up the resulting free-kick. His decent effort whipped past the post from 25 yards. After that though it was all down hill.
While Kieran Gibbs had been expected to start at left-back, the England man was nowhere to be seen when the teams stepped out on to the field of play. Francis Coquelin was his replacement, but somewhat typically given our season, he went down after nine minutes clutching his hamstring. Vermaelen was shifted out to the left again and everybody’s favourite French defender Sebastien Squillaci came on to make up a makeshift partnership with Djourou in the middle.
The injury to Coquelin interrupted our early rhythm and nervousness returned to the fore. Sessegnon had a snap shot from outside the box which didn’t trouble Fabianski. Ramsey and Song both hit the turf and gingerly limped back into the action while Djourou and Sagna seemed to repeatedly lose their footing when attempting clearances. We were rattled.
On 27 minutes a break led by Van Persie saw Gervinho, making his first start since returning from the African Cup of Nations, charge through on goal. His first touch controlled the ball, his second teed it up, his third hit a fierce effort which Mignolet parried over. It was an encouraging bright spark during a turgid period of play.
Four minutes later Van Persie drove into the box chasing a Song through ball. The Dutchman was felled by an untidy challenge by John O’Shea and Arsene Wenger immediately called for a penalty. You wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been given, although our captain didn’t make a big fuss about it. Back on the front foot we again controlled possession although clear cut chances were few and far between.
Five minutes before half-time clumsiness by Djourou led to a booking for the Swiss and free-kick to Sunderland on the right corner of the Arsenal box. Despite the ball being cleared by Vermaelen it was returned with venom by Kieran Richardson from the edge of the area and crashed past Fabianski. Replays showed the shot clipped Squillaci on the way, a touch which diverted it goalwards. 1-0 to the hosts.
The second 45 minutes started as the first finished – indecisiveness by Bacary Sagna leading to a foul on McLean and a booking for the Frenchman. Larsson from the edge of the box curled the resulting free-kick just over.
Aaron Ramsey, who appeared to pick up a knock early, was replaced by Tomas Rosicky on 51 minutes and to add to the ridiculousness of our injury crisis sub Squillaci also limped off the field with Theo Walcott coming on. Alex Song became the auxiliary centre-back again. We were all over the shop, indiscipline rife through the ranks. Vermaelen the latest to be handed a caution for a stupid challenge on the touchline.
The pitch wasn’t helping matters. Last week Per Mertesacker rolled his ankle, this week Sunderland’s Bardsley was the victim as the turf continued to give way. The hosts were aggressive in the tackle and closed down with real passion. Having had a week to mull over Thierry Henry’s last gasp winner they appeared in the mood for revenge.
In truth, not much happened for about 20 minutes. It was a scrappy affair, both sides struggling to string passes together, Arsenal more so than the Black Cats. With fifteen minutes to go Vermaelen sent a tepid header goalwards. Certainly not much to shout about. To rub salt into the wounds within a minute we went 2-0 down.
A break by Sunderland saw Sessegnon running directly at the Arsenal defence. Arteta fell over chasing back, the Benin international fed Larsson whose shot hit the post. As the ball rolled across the goal line Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who had raced back to help defend inadvertently diverted the ball over the line. An own goal. 2-0. Game over. Season over.
In the last ten minutes there should have been a reaction…a show of heart, passion, a sense of responsibility towards the badge and the travelling fans. Instead there was nothing. Nothing at all. We were nothing short of a joke.
Somehow we have to find focus to fight for a top four finish in the final three months of the season. Not even the most fervent gambler would be back us right now.