Holders deliver familiar outcome in treble chase
Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland
The winners of this competition for the past two years are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup after a low pressure, ultimately quite comfortable defeat of Sunderland.
A slightly weakened Arsenal team took its moments to strike, sealing the tie with second-half goals from Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, both created by the excellent Hector Bellerin. Alex Iwobi made a promising first start in the competition, earning praise from his manager for the timing of his passes and his willingness, aged 19, to run with the ball. Arsenal's attempt to become the first team since Blackburn Rovers 130 years ago to win the Cup three times in a row remains on course.
Beyond that it was a result that probably suited both teams. Sunderland took the lead and played with energy throughout. After the game, however, Sam Allardyce continued to rail against the round of Premier League fixtures in midweek that leaves Sunderland with a run of three away trips in the space of seven days. Here Allardyce's starting XI had seven changes, including 21-year-old Jordan Pickford, who made a fine club debut in goal. But it was still a relatively strong team, with Jermain Defoe and Yann M'Vila the most obvious absentees.
For his part Arsene Wenger had spoken about the need to respect the competition, the lure of its enduring magic and so on. There is an agreeable oddity in a manager once seen as the vanguard of annihilating overseas modernism emerging as a guardian of English football's grandest, most faded and outflanked competition. But then, Wenger has been around a terribly long time, a manager who was out there winning semi-final replays when the Cup was still the Cup.
He put out a strong team here, the only real concession to the occasion a second start for Iwobi, a long-term academy player but a genuine talent and a full Nigeria international. Iwobi made a bright start too, playing to the left of central midfield in a 4-1-4-1, with Callum Chambers hoovering up behind and Giroud the lone striker. It was from the left side that Kieran Gibbs had the first real sight of goal, cutting in and shooting at a good height for Pickford to palm the ball over.
With 17 minutes gone Gibbs was also involved in Sunderland's opening goal, losing the ball under pressure from Jeremain Lens just outside his own area. Behind him Laurent Koscielny, surprised by the break of the ball, also lost it, also to Lens, who shot past Petr Cech. It was a poor goal to concede, but reward also for Lens's energy and opportunism.
Arsenal were level six minutes later. It was a lovely goal too. Iwobi drove through the inside-left channel, and played a nice nudged pass to Theo Walcott, who feinted for the byline then played a beautiful cutback for Joel Campbell to finish with great assurance.
After this Arsenal settled into some room-temperature possession, with Iwobi, Walcott, Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain linking well enough, while Lens did his best to lead Sunderland on the counterattack. The same pattern resumed after half-time as Arsenal pressed a little harder, with Iwobi again giving the impression this was a match that perhaps meant a little more to him than some others on the pitch.
With the prospect of a reply beginning to lurk dimly, the game sprung to life. Oxlade-Chamberlain hit the post after making space with a jink on the edge of the box. Pickford made an excellent close-range save from Campbell, and in between times Steven Fletcher hit the bar with a header from close range when he really should have scored.
With 25 minutes to go Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey came on and Arsenal began to press down the flanks, Giroud and Walcott twice failing to make good contact with low fizzed crosses from the left. It was from the right that the second goal came. Bellerin frolicked in behind Patrick van Aanholt and produced the perfect cutback for Ramsey to angle the ball delicately from close range past Pickford. With 14 minutes to go the same route to goal sealed the game, Bellerin finding Giroud in the middle to sidefoot the ball home.
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