Arsenal miss Wright balance

Arsenal 1 Hartson 10 Sunderland 1 Gray 20 Attendance: 37,793
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The Independent Online
Canny auld Sun'lun, as they say on Wearside. "Magnifico as they say in in Paris," said the visitors' manager, Peter Reid, after his French goalkeeper Lionel Perez had defied Arsenal's best efforts at Highbury yesterday. Without the suspended Ian Wright, the home side just could not finish off Sunderland and now face a demanding Roker Park replay a week on Wednesday.

There, Arsenal will be missing Wright again - he is also out of the league encounter between these two teams on Saturday - as well as his deputy John Hartson, who was sent off against Middlesbrough on New Year's Day. That leaves them desperately short of striking potential. It seemed Arsenal would build on Hartson's early goal yesterday but, after Michael Gray's prompt equaliser, the Gunners' own wastefulness and an inspired display by the unorthodox but gymnastic Perez - a snip of a signing from Bordeaux at pounds 250,000 - thwarted them. In 1973, Sunderland had Jim Montgomery . . .

Reid's linguistic stumble was the only line he, and his team, fluffed. Over-run initially, he re-organised them by pushing forward his left-back Dariusz Kubicki to match Arsenal's midfield five and, though the home side went on to create a good number of chances, his own side also looked dangerous on the break. "It wasn't the good passing football match that we like to play," said Reid, "but we did a lot of shutting down."

Clearly they are made of stern stuff in Sunderland. On another denture- rattlingly cold day four of their players took the field wearing short- sleeved shirts, including Perez, as is the custodial fashion in France. Arsenal were all long sleeves. The glove count was 5-0 to Arsenal.

Very quickly it was the familiar refrain of "1-0 to the Arsenal" as Sunderland seemed to be caught cold. Paul Merson clipped in a cross from the edge of the six-yard box and Hartson met it well to send a powerful header in off the underside of the bar.

Gradually Sunderland warmed to the task, with Paul Bracewell and Steve Agnew getting to grips with Patrick Vieira and Merson in midfield. Up front, the promising, leggy 18-year-old Michael Bridges showed himself a willing runner and skilful ball-carrier, and he brought Sunderland back into the game as Arsenal drew breath. His ball forward found John Mullin, who laid it off to Gray and his sidefooted low shot from 15 yards surprised John Lukic at his near post.

Stung, Arsenal reasserted themselves just before half-time, Andy Melville having to clear off the line after Dennis Bergkamp had clipped the ball past Perez. Soon after, Perez saved Hartson's header from Nigel Winterburn's corner, and from the rebound Steve Bould smashed a shot goalwards. Melville was again in place on the line, the ball striking him on the hand, though the referee Steve Dunn turned down Arsenal's appeals for a penalty.

The pattern continued in the second half. In the first minute Perez saved smartly at his near post after Merson had met Hartson's cross. The same player's cross-shot later found only the legs of Perez, who also clutched Bergkamp's shot from the rebound. In addition, he pounced to prevent Hartson rounding him, but Arsenal were running out of steam. "We looked mentally and physically tired," said Arsenal's own Frenchman, their coach Arsene Wenger.

Sunderland's rearguard action was all the more laudable after losing Agnew with a broken wrist, and the heroics of Perez - who once played with last season's FA Cup winner Eric Cantona at Nimes - were the very essence of Cup performances. In any language, it was stunning stuff.