Arsene has an unlikely ally in rival O'Neill

Sunderland manager quick to offer support despite rarely seeing eye to eye with Wenger

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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger will find an unlikely ally five metres to his left at the Stadium of Light today.

Wenger has not always seen eye to eye with Martin O'Neill, the excitable manager of Sunderland, but in what has clearly become his hour of need after Arsenal's 4-0 defeat by AC Milan, there were genuine words of support.

"I'm not here to defend Arsène Wenger and he doesn't need defending by me, who is not his favourite character," said O'Neill. "He has been a terrific manager and very little surprises me in what seems to be the nature of things now, but I am surprised at a bit of the criticism. It's symptomatic of the game.

"That's not to say that managers of yesteryear weren't chased out. Let's be fair – eventually, if you don't win enough games, then you know you will be in trouble – but I think that not every single team can win the league and with four teams being able to qualify for the Champions League, Arsenal have done it every single year and who is to say they won't do it again?

"It was the same when I was managing the season before last [at Aston Villa]. It becomes your turn; it flips around. Wenger made that point, if you win a couple of games it moves on to someone else for a while.

"You can make a statistic out of anything. It's the nature of the game but while it remains like that you just have to live with it. He [Wenger] is not there to defend or explain every decision that he makes. He said he substituted a young 18-year-old [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain] for the Russian captain [Andrei Arshavin], who has been a pretty fine player, although perhaps not playing to his best. He doesn't have to explain everything. It's just the nature of the business.

"Obviously I will get asked about things during the course of a season, but to explain a substitution away... You ask yourself all types of questions, whether you could have freshened things up in the last five minutes. Hindsight is just fantastic and that great old phrase, 'Monday-morning quarterbacks' – I have been one myself. You can never make a wrong decision on the day after the Sunday game."

What is clear now is the importance to Wenger of Arsenal's fifth-round tie at Sunderland today following their capitulation in the San Siro on Wednesday night. Defeat will condemn his club to a seventh successive year without silverware.

"I don't know [if there is more pressure on them]," added O'Neill. "Of course they will be very disappointed to have lost so heavily in the Champions League; they probably weren't expecting that and even Arsène Wenger probably believes that the tie is now beyond them. You never know, maybe they will score early at the Emirates and get through.

"Does this put a different focus on to them? I'm not sure; I still think they would be targeting the FA Cup as something they could win.

"Look, we have a long way to go but winning the FA Cup would be an aim for a club of our size. Why shouldn't we think we should win something?"

FA Cup Fixtures


Chelsea v Birmingham (k.o. 12.30)

Everton v Blackpool (3)

Millwall v Bolton (3)

Norwich v Leicester (3)

Sunderland v Arsenal (5.15)


Crawley v Stoke (12)

Stevenage v Tottenham (2)

Liverpool v Brighton (4.30)