The mere sight of Sebastien Squillaci warming up on the touchline is enough to send a shiver down the spine of most Arsenal fans – but the thought of the hapless French defender enjoying a regular run of first-team action would surely be unthinkable. Alex Song has been somewhat out-of-tune of late, yet the option of dropping the Cameroon midfielder to centre-half in order not to field Squillaci, who inadvertently deflected in Kieran Richardson’s opener, is a much more attractive option for Arsène Wenger. It was no surprise to see Squillaci hauled off after the break and Song slotted into the back-four. Squillaci took his Arsenal shirt off as he began to trudge down the tunnel and frankly it would be a surprise to see him wear it again. The less-than-convincing Johan Djourou, meanwhile, needlessly fouled Craig Gardner to concede the free-kick that resulted in Sunderland’s opener – but with Laurent Kosclienly, Per Mertersacker out injured, he may have to do as the Gunners are left scrapping for a top-four finish.
Sunderland’s remarkable turnaround since Martin O’Neill took the reigns from Steve Bruce in December has been nothing short of remarkable. Since he took charge of his first game against Blackburn, the Northern Irishman has steered the Black Cats to nine wins and three draws from 15 games, hoisting them into ninth place in the Premier League table in the process. On Saturday, his side tirelessly closed Arsenal down, preventing the Londoners from settling into their usual passing rhythm as a typically animated O’Neill conducted proceedings from the edge of his technical area – a sharp contrast to his Arsenal counterpart, who looked inconsolable as he sat slumped in his seat in the dugout for much of the game.
If recent reports are to believed, Wenger has finally lost patience with Theo Walcott and is ready to offload the England forward in the summer. His feeble showing at San Siro in midweek left the Arsenal boss with no choice but to substitute the 22-year-old at half-time. The Gunners look to have unearthed a real gem in 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who started on the right at the Stadium of Light and was unlucky to bundle home Sunderland’s second as he tried to clear off the line. Gervinho, who started brightly on the left but faded quickly after the break, was thrown straight in at the deep end after returning from the Africa Cup of Nations. Walcott was brought on early in the second half as Wenger looked for a response from his side, but the forward made no impact. Whether Walcott really is on his way out or not, he certainly needs to step his game up or he will find first-team opportunities limited at The Emirates.
James McClean has been given his chance to shine by O’Neill since he took over at the Stadium of Light and the 22-year-old has emphatically seized his opportunity. He has netted four goals in 14 appearances since December, including the opener against the Gunners last weekend, and looked bright all evening in the FA Cup clash as he tormented a makeshift Arsenal back-four. “I’m so impressed with his eagerness and his energy levels and the fact that he just loves to pick up the ball and run at players,” says an adoring O’Neill, who admits even he has been surprised by the winger’s stunning form since he handed him his opportunity to impress. After joining from Derry City for just £350,000 in the summer, talk of a Republic of Ireland call-up is by no means unwarranted.
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