Sunderland’s focus turns fully onto the League One run-in, as their marvellous Carabao Cup journey ended with a 5-1 victory to Premier League outfit, Arsenal, at the Emirates on Tuesday night.
The match proved to be a good progress check for Lee Johnson’s side, but they were ultimately undone by moments of quality from Mikel Arteta’s team, who advance to the semi-finals of the competition which they have been twice-holders.
A hat-trick and a man-of-the-match performance from ruthless striker, Eddie Nketiah, proved to be the major difference between the two sides, but thanks to a brief period at the end of the first half Sunderland matched their opponents impressively well, and scored the only goal Arsenal have conceded in the competition all season through a wonderful strike from Nathan Broadhead.
However, it was the removal of the striker with a presumed hamstring injury that seemed to make a huge difference as the Gunners stepped up the tempo, with Nketiah’s hat-trick coming either side of goals from Nicolas Pepe and debutant, Charlie Patino.
It was a switch away from the EFL Cup textbook for Lee Johnson, as he made only two changes to the team that drew 1-1 with Ipswich on Saturday afternoon - Burge and Embleton the two arrivals in the side, with Hoffmann and Dajaku dropping out of the squad.
Arsenal came into this contest rich in form, and on Saturday lifted themselves into the top four of the Premier League with a 4-1 victory over Leeds United, but the difference in league positions wasn’t clear within the opening exchanges.
The away underdogs looked well organised and focused and started well - Pritchard’s low effort forced Bernt Leno into the first save of the match.
From there, the Gunners began to step up the tempo and enjoyed spells of possession, especially when forcing the full-backs wide and playing out from defence.
They started to mount some pressure onto the Black Cats’ backline, and struck the crossbar with 12 minutes on the clock when Tavares’ cross was deflected onto the woodwork by the leg of Elliot Embleton - but the warning signs were apparent, and Mikel Arteta’s side eventually found their breakthrough.
Cedric’s corner from the left was met by the head of Rob Holding, but despite being blocked on the line by Embleton, Eddie Nketiah’s follow-up from a few yards out was bundled past Lee Burge.
After the opening goal, Arsenal looked more dangerous and threatening both in and out of possession, and pushed for their second when Balogun’s low drive was fired into the gloves of Lee Burge.
That second goal wasn’t far away, and the home side showed their Premier League quality, as both Cedric and Nicolas Pepe combined to tee up the latter to fire into the roof of the net, via a small deflection from Callum Doyle.
A two-goal deficit was unfortunate for the away side after a good start, and gained a deserved goal to half the scoreline through a smart finish over Bernt Leno by Nathan Broadhead, after a swift counter-attacking move.
Sunderland suddenly began to look smarter and savvier in possession, and carried some momentum and pressure, as they searched for an equaliser, when Winchester’s left-footed shot was tipped around the post by the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Despite all the momentum that Sunderland were building, Arsenal always had quality within their ranks, with Emile Smith Rowe’s low volley forcing a punch-away by Lee Burge.
Sadly, the half ended in unfortunate circumstances for Lee Johnson’s side as their most influential attacker, Nathan Broadhead, was forced off with a hamstring injury.
After the half-time interval, the away side were dealt with an early blow as they dropped two goals behind through a moment of brilliance from Nketiah for his second. A loose tackle from Embleton allowed the ball to drop for Tavares, who cut the ball back for the Arsenal forward for a superb flick into the bottom right corner.
The game was defined upon moments of quality, and Sunderland rued their missed opportunities, with Embleton’s left-footed curling effort colliding with the outside of the left post - and only moments later, Arsenal carved the Black Cats open with what can only be classified as Premier League quality.
A superb, incisive pass from Martin Odegaard pin-pointed Pepe on the right wing, before the winger brilliantly nut-megged Denver Hume, before cutting the ball back for Nketiah, who produced a clever finish into the bottom left corner.
It was complete domination from the Gunners as Odegaard went close again for the hosts, as his chance was saved by Burge after another Pepe nut-meg on Hume.
Arsenal swarmed the final third with red-and-white shirts and were looking for more, as Tavares smashed his effort over the bar before debutant Charlie Patino fired the ball into the bottom left corner to make it five-one.
And even that scoreline was harsh on Sunderland. They acquitted themselves extremely well against their Premier League opposition, who are arguably in the best form in the country based upon their torrid start to the season.
They had clear quality in their ranks, and although Arteta made nine changes, they utilised the calibre and experience of £72 million winger Nicolas Pepe to cause Sunderland a handful of problems, and ultimately their defensive frailties were exposed by some moments of brilliance.
But, for Sunderland, the fact that they were able to battle at this stage was impressive, and a testament to their progress this season and their direction of travel - but now, full attention turns to League One.
The Black Cats have a pivotal fixture against Doncaster Rovers next Monday at the Keepmoat, and will no doubt need three points to keep up the heat upon the league-leaders Rotherham.
Injuries to Broadhead and Dajaku throw a spanner into the works of Johnson’s plans; the length of both injuries still unknown, the significance may prove to be massive.
For now, Sunderland gave Arsenal a run for their money, but ultimately their quality prevailed, and it’s back onto the League One train for the Black Cats.