The quarter finals beckon. A thoroughly deserved victory for Sunderland at the Stadium Of Light this afternoon saw us not only get through to the next round, not only beat Arsenal, but completely out play and out work the Londoners.
The thoroughly committed performance from all eleven men out there was absolutely incredible. A joy to see such effort, workrate and tenacity. My word. I don't even know what to say at this point, I'm just over the bloody moon.
Anyway, relive the afternoon with our match report here...
Just the one change to the starting line-up for Sunderland as Lee Cattermole was welcomed back to the side having passed a fitness test, and also regained the captaincy. Fraizer Campbell made way for Catts' return, and joined the usual faces on the substitutes bench.
Arsenal dominated things for the early part of the game, passing the ball about at will and with us not showing a great deal of attacking intent. That isn't particularly a slur, we just couldn't get the ball. Despite the possession the visitors didn't provide much by way of threat in the opening ten minutes. Mikel Arteta's freekick was about as close as either team came to breaking the deadlock.
If this was reminiscent of last Saturday, things got even more eerie moments later. First of all Francis Coquelin did his best impression of Per Mertesacker in getting injured doing nothing at all, leading to the young Frenchman being replaced. Elsewhere following a corner, Alex Song also impersonated Mertesacker in handling in the box.
Stephane Sessegnon drove a shot just wide of Lukas Fabianski's goal, and despite the fact it was never really going in, it did seem to fire us into action. The crowd roared as our high pressing started to pay dividends. McClean and Gardner were industrious in hassling Song and Ramsey in the middle, and the visitors began to look a little rattled.
Twice in this period Sebastian Larsson was nearly played in for an opening goal. First Sessegnon's delicious slide rule pass was well defended by Thomas Vermaelen, then James McClean's cross into the six yard area was left by Squillaci but unfortunately Fabianski;s glove pipped Larsson's boot to the ball.
On the half hour it seemed everyone remembered that it would be quite beneficial to win today, what with it being the FA cup and all that. Firstly, Gervinho stung the palms of a maskless Simon Mignolet when slipped in by a quiet to this point, Robin Van Persie. At the other end some neat passing eventually lead to a Sebastian Larsson "trademark" corner which needed only the slightest of touches from anyone to hit the back of the net. Nobody was obliging.
Arsenal had their own penalty appeal turned down too in the first half. Van Persie was through, and facing Mignolet, was downed in the area by John O'Shea. O'Shea nicked both man and ball, but in the view of Howard Webb (and myself), O'Shea clipped the ball first. Nothing given and relief all round as the game livened up.
With five minutes to half time, the deadlock was finally broken... and in style by Kieran Richardson. Larsson whipped in a freekick which could only be half cleared by Arsenal defence to Richardson lurking just inside the box. The left-back smashed the ball low, across his body and into the corner of Fabianksi's goal, with the help of a small deflection off of Squillaci.
This was more like it. Arsenal couldn't seem to handle the quick and high-pressing throughout the first half, and with the whistle nearing, McClean nearly made it 2-0. Larsson again the instigator as his cross was knocked back into the area by Colback, but the visiting keeper did enough to force McClean into hitting the side netting from inside the penalty area.
All in all though, things were going excellently, and when the whistle was eventually blown you'd say the scoreline was almost certainly the right outcome. Given the earlier parallels to the previous weekend's game though, at this stage even more pertinent that we'd taken the lead.
The second half started well, and the first fifteen minutes of it almost encapsulated the entire first half. Larsson nearly doubled the lead with an exquisite free-kick, and whilst proper chances were few and far between for both sides, Sunderland were by far on top.
There was a mild worry which really needs commenting on in the second half too. Phil Bardsley nearly turned his ankle nastily as the pitch seemed to engulf his right foot when looking for a ball from Larsson, and for a moment we all worried that it was Elmohamady time for the foreseeable. Aaron Ramsey did something similar in the first half, and was eventually substituted, but something needs to be done about this ASAP.
The game wore on the game became more controlled in our favour, with no real chances for either team of note. Robin Van Persie fired a free-kick low and wide of the mark, Craig Gardner did likewise from the other end from open play.
As we entered the final fifteen minutes, the spirit on show from the lads was nothing short of outstanding. The workrate of every single player to chase hopeless causes, put things out for throw-ins instead of letting them run for goalkicks and continue to hustle, hassle and pressure Arsenal in every area of the pitch as we had from the opening minute.
The hard work was soon rewarded as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain bundled the ball into his own net to put the game well and truly out of the visitors at 2-0.
An incisive breakaway started right down near our own penalty area as McClean slipped in Sessegnon who'd been lurking by the halfway line. In the foot-race with Arteta there was only going to be one victor, and when the Spaniard fell to the ground the writing was on the wall.
Rather unselfishly Sessegnon tried to play in Gardner who'd joined him, but it eluded the former Birmingham man, and found Sebastian Larsson, his shot clipped the post, and in trying to clear the ball Oxlade-Chamberlain could only bundle it into his own net. Unfortunate for such a promising player, but the goal was certainly deserved for the effort on show.
Not that we were to rest on our laurels from this point onwards, as the pressing continued, and half-chances came. McClean nearly finding himself on the end of Sessegnon's cross, whilst the visitors attempted both crap and chaotic corner routines.
None of this really mattered. The game was over from when Kieran Richardson gave us the lead. You could just kind of tell...
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (7), Bardsley (7), Turner (7), O'Shea (7), Richardson (7), Larsson (8), Colback (7), Cattermole (8), Gardner (7), McClean (8), Sessegnon (8)
Subs Used: Campbell (6)
Man Of The Match: Everyone - A first for the site, but a decision that had to be made. The tussle was between Cattermole who was like a brickwall in midfield, Sessegnon who was just a constant menace and played the role of all round striker to absolute perfection. McClean never stopped working, and Larsson's balls into the area never stopped.... I can't separate them. This was the ultimate in team performances.
And so we're in the quarter final of the FA Cup. If you weren't believing before that this was our year, I think you will be now having witnessed that today.
The performance was second to none, and perhaps even one of the best under O'Neill so far. I can't sing the praises of the entire team, the endeavour shown quite highly enough. To a man, we were excellent. Arsenal played fairly poorly, but that was also in large part due to the fact we made them look poor today. Take nothing away from us at all.
For weeks now I've tried not to get too carried away with talk of going the distance in the FA cup, but when a chorus of Que Sera broke out at the Stadium Of Light, something inside just said "I think this might well be the year"... We fear nobody in the quarter final draw, and a a big day out awaits. I'm sure of it.
Marty's Party is continuing right the way to May 5th.
Ha'way The Lads.