Arsène Wenger’s team found two moments of clarity to make sure their illustrious name would not be added to the list of Sutton’s scalps this season, with Lucas Pérez and Theo Walcott stopping the pressure on Wenger from intensifying.
The Frenchman will always have the FA Cup. A trophy he has won six times during his Arsenal tenure remains key in his thoughts. It is the best chance they have of possible success this season given how they have drifted off the Premier League pace and suffered a heavy beating in Munich in the Champions League. Lincoln City are up next, the last survivors from non-league in the Cup this season.
Sutton gave Arsenal some scares, Roarie Deacon hitting the crossbar in the second half, but the adventure came to a not entirely surprising end. “We’re proud of you,” sang the home fans at the end of it all before ignoring polite pleas over the PA system to keep off the pitch come the final whistle. On this grandest of occasions, that proved impossible to resist, and disappointed Sutton’s manager, Paul Doswell, who regretted that his players were not able to take the bow they deserved.
The atmosphere at Gander Green Lane was evocative enough to emphasise the contrast Sutton hoped would be the great leveller, while Arsenal’s bus with its blacked-out windows turned in just over an hour before kick-off so as not to have too long to luxuriate in the cosy dressing rooms.
The home Doswell describes as “our little palace” was light years away from the Allianz Arena which Arsenal experienced five days previously. This was a whole different world of footballing apprehension, and the visitors had to master a difficult situation on a surface that did not allow the ball to run as they would usually expect it in order to avoid a problem.
Wenger picked a semi-strength team as he normally does for the Cup, but one assembled for £133m all the same. It took the visitors a while to find any kind of rhythm and that gave Sutton some early glimmers of hope.
The lively Deacon and Craig Eastmond – two former Arsenal academy trainees – may not quite be as threatening as the Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm right-flank combination but they linked to promising effect. As Arsenal tried to adjust to the pitch, Nacho Monreal’s overhit pass to Alex Iwobi prompted an outpouring of hilarity from the home crowd.
Arsenal finally found some slick passing midway through the first half and the moment they constructed a serious move they broke Sutton. Granit Xhaka had only just showed his reckless edge with a grapple in the middle of the park for which he was booked. His more positive side made a difference as he released Pérez with a smartly flicked pass. The Spaniard, reportedly unhappy with his lack of opportunities since signing for Arsenal last summer, cut inside to drive low into the box. Walcott’s attempted flick distracted goalkeeper Ross Worner and the damage was done.
There were other opportunities to turn the screw, with Monreal, Walcott and Iwobi in sight of extending the lead. But how suddenly the pendulum could have swung. Sutton were gifted an extraordinary opportunity to equalise as goalkeeper David Ospina got no lift at all on a kick upfield. The ball landed invitingly for Adam May. Glory beckoned. The Gander Green Lane crowd held its collective breath. May could not find his range, however, and a golden chance hit the side-netting.
Sutton’s determination to make life awkward for their visitors cranked up after the break as Bedsenté Gomis gave Monreal a fright as he wriggled into space in the box. Gomis’s shot was blocked by Rob Holding. Any giant killing requires some ruthlessness when chances come, and for all their endeavour Sutton were not quite able to take the invitations that came their way. Arsenal duly punished them with a precise move. Walcott, on the end of it, plundered his 100th goal for the club.
Over and out? Not quite. Sutton were far from finished, and created four presentable chances in quick response. May teed up Maxime Biamou, who could not find the power or precision in his shot to bother Ospina. Deacon’s terrific work down the left opened Arsenal up again but his teasing cross was headed behind for a corner. Jamie Collins leapt to meet it but watched his effort squeeze over the crossbar. Deacon came closer still with a thunderbolt that made the bar shudder.
Not to be. Job done for Arsenal. And so life returns to normal for Sutton United, at the end of this remarkable FA Cup odyssey. Three points off the relegation zone of English football’s fifth tier, a trip to Torquay next, they have memories to last a lifetime.
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