After all the drama of past week and nail biting about falling victim to the “Magic of the Cup,” our game against Sutton was forgettable. Arsenal sent out a strong team and got the job done without being at their best. Sutton had their moments but didn’t give Arsenal enough trouble to worry them.
With Arsenal not having a game for 12 days, Wenger had little reason not to play several of his regulars. Lucas got a much needed run out and lead the line supported by Walcott, still stuck on 99 Arsenal goals, Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. Xhaka and Elneny were paired up in midfield. Monreal returned to the backline, while Gabriel replaced Bellerin and Holding slotted in alongside Mustafi. Ospina, as always in the cup, was in goal.
It was a huge occasion for Sutton but the match had a feel of a friendly more than a cup tie. Arsenal spent much of the opening exchanges passing amongst their backline while Sutton clogged the midfield. There was very little action in either penalty area. Roarie Deacon carried some menace for Sutton, but failed to deliver a quality cross. For Arsenal, Alex Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide struggled to impose themselves on the game.
Twenty-five minutes in, I was beginning to feel that Arsenal were having one of those evenings where they doze through most of the game. There was mounting hope of Sutton taking advantage of our lethargy from the BBC commentators. Sutton, though, committed one too many players to an attack and allowed Arsenal to counter. Xhaka’s pass released Lucas down the right hand side. The Spaniard did well to keep it in and cut in on his left foot. His cross-shot was devilish. Precise and powerful, it found its way under Walcott’s flick and into the far corner. We were a goal up without really trying.
Sutton were competitive, though they nearly crossed the line at times. A tough Eastmond tackle on Elneny early on gave the Egyptian a knock he wouldn’t recover from. Collins, the Sutton centre back and hero from the previous round, flew into a challenge on Iwobi that was a red card anywhere, not just in the Premier League as Graeme Le Saux claimed on commentary. Sutton being the plucky underdogs, the challenge was laughed off by Shearer and Keown at half-time and not condemned for nearly breaking Iwobi’s leg.
That aside, Ospina did his best to gift-wrap a goal for Sutton. The Colombian dozed away most of the first half and passed the ball straight to May. Fortunately, the Portsmouth loanee made a mess of the opportunity and our lead remained intact at half-time.
Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for the injured Elneny and demonstrated his ability in the middle of the pitch, but like everyone else, there was sloppiness in his game. Arsenal’s game was rife with over hit passes, break downs in communication and heavy touches. Perhaps we would have been punished for it if we were playing a better team. As it was, Sutton were only threatening through Deacon. Eventually, Arsenal found some quality in their passing to open the non-league side up and tee up Walcott for 100th Arsenal goal.
If we’re being selfish for a moment, it would have been great for Walcott to get that goal against Chelsea or Bayern. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic achievement for a player that’s never quite won everyone over. The goal put the game to bed.
Sutton had their best period of that goal. Deacon got down the outside of Mustafi and produced a quality cross that Monreal did brilliantly to deal with. Collins got a free header from the subsequent corner, but headed it over. Deacon, easily the man of the match, then crashed a long-ranged effort against the bar. A Sutton goal might have made Arsenal uncomfortable in the final twenty minutes.
The opportunity to really ruffle Arsenal passed them by and the game tailed off. Alexis came on for a bit of showboating (“Give it to Sanchez!” chanted the 500 Arsenal fans, in a neat summary of what they think of the rest of the team right now) and Sutton’s goalkeeping coach tucked into a pie on the touchline; a moment that BBC gleefully replayed in slow motion for the amusement of everyone at home.
So 2-0 it ended. It was far from the ruthless hammering some might have wanted, but Arsenal ensured they got the job done with minimal fuss and accidents. The night, in many ways, was all about Sutton and their journey to this point. Whether we won or not was irrelevant. Sutton did themselves proud and look back on this year fondly.
The win sets-up a quarter-final against the other non-league team in the competition, Lincoln City. We’re at the Emirates this time, and with the game following the second leg against Bayern, I foresee more changes than we saw tonight. Lincoln, of course, will fancy their chances after their remarkable win at Burnley. For Arsenal, it’s a tremendous opportunity to slip into the semi-finals and a day out at Wembley relatively unnoticed. Anything less would be a great disappointment.