Sunderland prove to have more in reserve
Arsenal ... 2 Sunderland ... 3 Howard Wilkinson must be doing something right. After seeing Sunderland so outplayed in the first half last night that they trailed by two goals, the manager watched his players conjure an extraordinary comeback to defeat Arsenal in this battle of reserve sides.
Deservedly behind to strikes by Robert Pires and Francis Jeffers, Sunderland responded with three goals in 15 minutes when they had looked incapable of three by Christmas. Marcus Stewart, previously anonymous, set up the first for Kevin Kyle and then he and Darren Williams scored with headers to inflict Arsenal's fifth defeat in six matches.
Both managers had shown their priorities lay elsewhere by selecting vastly understrength teams. Wilkinson's decision indicated the seriousness of Sunderland's fight to avoid relegation with Kevin Phillips, Michael Gray and others staying behind as nine changes were made from the side that started at Charlton on Sunday.
Arsene Wenger went a step further, picking not a single player who had started at Fulham. Yet this was a big night for two experienced men, with Arsenal's Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Sunderland's Emerson Thome returning after lengthy absences.
Van Bronckhorst provided the assist when Pires gave Arsenal a 12th-minute lead. The Dutchman slid a free-kick to Pires, who took advantage of dreadful marking to score with a first-time shot from outside the penalty area.
Despite all their changes Arsenal still had six full internationals and Pires was particularly prominent early on as Arsenal dominated and might have scored further goals. Jeffers eventually extended Arsenal's lead when Kanu's pass put him clear to beat Macho.
Arsenal could have been out of sight early in the second half when Jeffers shot wide but complacency set in, allowing Sunderland a spell of pressure which brought them a goal. Paul Thirlwell's corner was flicked on by Stewart and Kyle headed in. After Macho had denied Van Bronckhorst the comeback was completed. First Stewart headed in Proctor's cross and then Williams nodded in Matthew Piper's centre to take Sunderland through.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Taylor; Luzhny, Tavlaridis, Stepanovs, Toure; Pennant (Volz, 81) Svard (Garry, 81), van Bronckhorst, Pires; Kanu, Jeffers.
SUNDERLAND (4-3-1-2): Macho; Rossiter, Varga, Thome, McCartney; Williams, Schwarz (Piper, half-time), Thirlwell; Stewart; Proctor, Kyle.
Referee: A Wiley