Football: Arsenal's curious fallibility

Arsenal 1 Sunderland 1
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The Independent Online
Much has been made of the team spirit Arsene Wenger inherited from his predecessors, less of their bad habits. One of them is an inability to win FA Cup ties at Highbury. This was Arsenal's fourth home game in the competition without a victory since they won the trophy in 1993. If recent history is anything to go by, it will be followed by an early exit at Roker Park on Wednesday week.

Despite boasting the Premiership's best record on their own territory, Wenger's side were never entirely convincing against a Sunderland team that are built in the image of their manager, Peter Reid: combining prodigious work-rate, intelligent use of the ball plus a sprinkling of imagination. The visitors rode their luck - notably when the referee, Steve Dunn, was just about the only person at the Clock End of the ground not to notice Andy Melville's handball which cleared a Steve Bould header off the line - but deserved a replay.

Certainly it would have been harsh on Lionel Perez to finish on the losing side. A series of outstanding saves punctuated a commanding display, the best an astonishing effort to deny Paul Merson early in the second half. A pounds 250,000 signing from Bordeaux in August, Perez is surely one of the buys of the season, though his excellence did not surprise Wenger who recalled his promising early career with Nimes.

Perez had no chance with Arsenal's goal, John Hartson burying Merson's well-flighted cross from close in, but before Arsenal could capitalise on their early momentum the Wearsiders equalised.

Aware that his side were being overrun, Peter Reid pushed Dariusz Kubicki into midfield, and almost immediately they fashioned an opening along the left flank which culminated in John Mullin teeing the ball up for the impressive Michael Gray.

The goal highlighted the vulnerability of Arsenal's three centre-backs. Tony Adams had a poor game, but more worrying for Wenger was the continued discomfort of Martin Keown, the left-footer on the right-hand side of the trio.

One Premiership manager, visiting Highbury earlier in the season, advised his forwards to harry Arsenal's defenders unless the ball went to Keown, safe in the knowledge that the ball would soon be returned to his team. For his all defensive qualities, Keown's woeful distribution may become a serious impediment to Wenger's ball-playing vision for his team.

Not that Keown's place will be in jeopardy for the next couple of games, when Arsenal visit Sunderland first in the League, then in the replay of this game. Two England internationals, Davids Seaman and Platt, may be fit by then, but suspensions mean Ian Wright will miss both, Hartson the latter.

Wenger is keen to sign a striker on loan (though he will not be eligible for the replay) and expects to learn whether one particular foreigner - not Milan's Marco Simone, with whom he has been linked - is available in the next couple of days.

Goals: Hartson (10) 1-0; Gray (20) 1-1.

Arsenal (3-5-2): Lukic; Keown, Adams, Bould; Parlour, Merson, Vieira, Morrow (Shaw, 70), Winterburn; Bergkamp, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Bartram (gk).

Sunderland: (4-4-1-1): Perez; Melville, Ord, Hall, Kubicki; Agnew (Williams, 53) Bracewell, Gray, Kelly; Bridges (Aiston, 76); Mullin (Russell, 59).

Referee: S W Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: Sunderland: Williams.

Man of the match: Perez. Attendance: 37, 793.

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