08 January 2016

When a Black Cat crosses your path, take the Ox by the horns...

The FA Cup's third round proper brings us a Goldilocks story, in a way: Sunderland are not too big, not too small. They're juuussst right. Yes, they're in the Prem—but barely. We know them in a way that we wouldn't know, say Exeter or Scunthorpe. We won't underestimate them as we've done other squads from lower divisions. At the other end of things, they're not quite Tottenham or Liverpool, a squad that can (in theory, at least) match us blow for blow. This draw falls somewhere between 2014's against newly promoted Hull City and 2015's against perennial rival Tottenham. In any case, we have a third straight FA Cup to win, and Sunderland is the first club that stands in our way.

Well, "stand" might put it bit strongly for a squad that has found just 15 points from 20 fixtures—behind snakebitten Newcastle's 17 points. The only win Sunderland have found in their last six came over Aston Villa, who seem to have already booked a spot in the Championship. For as bad as they are overall, though Sunderland are even worse away from the Stadium of Light, scraping just four points from 10 fixtures. It seems that Allardyce can't quite get this squad to play with the same stubborness that he did with West Ham. With Sunderland struggling to escape the relegation zone, will he look past Saturday in order to focus on their Tuesday trip to Liberty Stadium to take on the sinking Swansea, who sit just two points clear of that zone? Perhaps. However, it will be up to us to make that decision easier for him by taking the match to his boys early and often.

 At our end, the absence of Alexis should give a vital chance to a player desperately in need of one, and one whom I figure is due for a confidence-boosting chance: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Since scoring the winner in the Community Shield, Ox has struggled, haunted perhaps by his gaffes against West Ham and aAS Monaco. Ever since then, he's vacillated between timidity, rage, and despair—afraid to make a mistake, and then furious or despondent when he does. So poor has his form been of late that Joel Campbell, once seen as more of a running joke than a first-team player, has risen to cult-favorite while Ox's star has plummeted precipitously. With an eye to Wednesday trip to Anfield, Ox should start along with Campbell either side of Giroud. Alternately, he could pair with Arteta or Flamini in the defensive midfield, a position Ox has played well in the past given a more-defensive partner. In either case, Ox needs a runout, and Sunderland look ready to be bowled over.

LAST THREE
Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland (05.12.2015)
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland (20.05.2015)
Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal (25.10.2014)

FACTFILE
Arsenal have never lost in the FA Cup's third round proper under Arsène.
Sunderland have never won at the Emirates, their last away-win over Arsenal coming in 2002-03. 
The two clubs first clashed on 1 August 1904 in a scoreless draw.

INJURIES
Bellerín and Alexis join Wilshere, Welbeck, Coquelin, Cazorla, and Rosický on the injured list. 

POSSIBLE STARTING XI 
Ospina; Gibbs, Gabriel, Koscielny, Chambers; Flamini, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Campbell; Giroud

PREDICTION
A depleted and dispirited Sunderland side will succumb to an in-from Arsenal.
Arsenal 3-0 Sunderland