Sunderland travel to North London on Tuesday night as the last EFL team left in the Carabao Cup to make the quarter final stage, facing an in-form Arsenal.
The journey for the lads to get to this stage has been character-building to say the least, having had away ties every round at Port Vale, Blackpool, Wigan and QPR. Highlights along the way were an Aiden O’Brien hat-trick, second string dominance at the DW Stadium, and a dramatic penalty shootout win in west London. For the Gunners, the route has been far more slick, pumping West Brom 6-0, Wimbledon 3-0 and Leeds 2-0 – with the privilege of playing one fewer round owing to their Premier League status.
Albeit unchanged in the last four league games, throughout the rounds Arsenal have played with a rotational approach to the competition. However, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang jettisoned for disciplinary breaches, Seed Kolasinac out with an ankle injury, and Pablo Mari and Albert Lokongo plagued with the dreaded Covid-19, Arsenal may have to mix it up.
If Aubameyang remains out of favour, and geared up for a January exit, skipper Alexandre Lacazette may have to lead the line, supported by Eddie Nketiah and Nicholas Pepe. The shape is likely to be a 4-2-3-1, which could see fit-again Bernd Leno take the gloves, giving Aaron Ramsdale a rest before the busy (or not so busy) festive period.
For Lee Johnson, selection could be tricky even though this is essentially a free hit as they are very much second favourites in a two-horse race. With an injury picked up Saturday at Ipswich for German winger Leon Dajaku, the wide options are once again compromised. That being said it was pleasing to see Denver Hume return to action at Portman Road, and showed very little signs of rustiness, as he made his familiar pressing runs down the left wing.
So for Johnson it’s going to be a case of either saving bodies or saving face, I would imagine it will be the latter and we will see a similar side to the weekend. Out of the current available crop only Lynden Gooch has played any Premier League football, and that’s a handful of games, so the opportunity to play at Arsenal should have players banging down the gaffer’s door. Now back in training, we may see Dennis Cirkin make the trip to his former rivals, and Corry Evans, should his plastic body survive a pre-match warm up.
Previous meetings between the two sides have been dominated by the Gunners, with Sunderland not beating them since the start of 2012. That was an FA Cup tie at the Stadium of Light where the lads ran out 2-0 winners with a goal from Kieran Richardson, and an own goal from a young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The last time the two teams met was in the good old Premier League days back in 2017 when an Alexis Sanchez late double saw off the Black Cats. A defeat like that seems far more palatable than a score draw at Fleetwood Town in the third tier, that’s for sure.
Arsenal are the bookies’ favourites, but Mikel Arteta is going to have to decide whether silverware is just as important this season as Champions League status. Luckily for the Spaniard he has an embarrassment of riches in comparison to the injury-ravaged League One opposition, and will likely keep a strong bench to turn the screw if he has to.
Of course, the lads dared to dream in 2014 making the final of this competition, losing to Manchester City 3-1 having led for most of the game.
Arsenal, on the other hand, last won the cup in 1993 in a quirk of a season where they beat Sheffield Wednesday in both domestic knockouts, adding the FA Cup to Coca-Cola Cup glory.
Johnson has some history in this competition himself having guided Bristol City to the semi-final in 2018, beating Manchester United in the quarter finals, before taking the game to Manchester City over two legs.
In the words of The Clash, London’s Calling, and we answer that with over 5,000 supporters making the trip to the Emirates, loaded with masks and Covid passports. Myself and some WMS colleagues will be there for the match, which regardless of the result, will be far better than any cheese and wine garden party going on in the city.