FA Cup - Cup exit ensures more misery for Arsenal
Arsenal appear condemned to a seventh season without a trophy after their FA Cup challenge came to an inglorious end with a 2-0 loss to Sunderland in the fifth round.
Arsene Wenger had uncharacteristically ripped into his players following their humiliating 4-0 defeat to AC Milan on Wednesday and had hoped to provoke a reaction in an attempt to salvage something from a disastrous season.
However, in another desperately disappointing performance, and with three players succumbing to injury in a worryingly familiar narrative, Arsenal were beaten by a 40th-minute strike from Kieran Richardson and then an own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 12 minutes remaining.
With a title challenge no longer on the agenda and a second leg against Milan looking like a hopeless exercise, Arsenal's under-fire manager and his under-performing players surely have only fourth place remaining as an objective following this latest setback in a season full of acute disappointment.
After their evisceration in Milan, Arsenal made five changes, one of which was enforced as injury kept Laurent Koscielny out. With Per Mertesacker also missing for the long-term having sustained an injury on the same pitch a week ago, Arsenal were then left to rue yet another fitness problem at the Stadium of Light as Francis Coquelin pulled up with a nasty hamstring injury after only 10 minutes.
Arsenal were forced to introduce Sebastien Squillaci alongside Johan Djourou, and push Thomas Vermaelen out to his unfavoured position of left-back, before both Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey also temporarily sustained knocks in a concerning opening period for the apparently fragile visitors.
The substitution disrupted their impressive early rhythm, with Mikel Arteta going close with a lovely free kick, and the sight of such an unfamiliar defence in front of Lukasz Fabianski, who played in place of Wojciech Szczesny as Wenger rotated his keepers, clearly enthused Sunderland.
The home side could have had a penalty had Howard Webb spotted Song getting an arm to a corner from Sebastian Larsson, while lone forward Stephane Sessegnon was bright early on, sending one firm effort wide of the far post after losing Squillaci.
Arsenal's passing clicked on occasion and one such attack saw Robin van Persie thread a fine pass through for Gervinho. The forward, just back from the African Cup of Nations, took a touch before forcing Simon Mignolet into a fine save with a drilled effort.
Song then spotted a clever run from Van Persie before playing in his captain with an expertly-weighted pass, but John O'Shea came across and just about got enough of the ball to avoid conceding a penalty.
Sunderland - who had lost only two in their past 12 games in all competitions - always looked full of intent and took the lead thanks to their admirable persistence: Djourou was culpable when allowing Gardner to close down his attempted clearance and then brought the midfielder down to earn a yellow card.
Larsson was tasked with taking the free kick and although Vermaelen got his head to the ball, he only succeeded in turning it into the path of Richardson, who from an unlikely angle saw his firm volley deflect in off Squillaci.
With Arsenal's season firmly ebbing away in front of their eyes, the visitors were then exposed again as Larsson, against his former side, delivered a fine deep cross to the back post: Jack Colback hooked the ball back to James McClean but the winger thumped his effort into the side netting.
Arsenal's predicament intensified at the start of the second half when they were pressed into a double substitution. Both Ramsey and Squillaci picked up injuries so Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott were introduced, with Song moving to join Djourou in defence as Arsenal fielded their third different central combination of the afternoon.
Already looking vulnerable and unbalanced, Arsenal were then lucky to see Djourou remain on the pitch when the defender, already on a booking, avoided any punishment for a stupid and unnecessary two-footed challenge on Sessegnon.
With Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain subdued in wide positions, and Sunderland tenacious in their pursuit of the ball in the middle, Arsenal were struggling to carve out any genuine chances, although Vermaelen did see a firm header saved by Mignolet when getting on the end of a free kick from Arteta.
While Arsenal were undoubtedly poor, Sunderland were fantastic in the way they chased every ball and gave their opponents no rest whatsoever, and when the second goal came it was well deserved.
Wenger's side, as so often in Milan, were left exposed on the break yet again and Sessegnon was allowed too much space to play a ball to Larsson on the right of the box. The Swede hit the post with his low effort but the ball rolled into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain and the young man got his legs in a tangle when inadvertently knocking the ball over the line.
That moment of self-destruction seemed somewhat apt for a side that has seen their season dissipate in the space of four days, and with Sunderland standing firm, Arsenal were unable to turn the tide of the game, and their campaign as a whole, when meekly suffering elimination from another competition.