FA Cup: Arsenal advance impressed by 5th-tier Sutton's grit
SUTTON: Relief for Arsenal, pride for Sutton United.
On the plastic patch at tiny Gander Green Lane stadium, the gulf in class between teams separated by 105 places in the English soccer pyramid but pitted against each other in the FA Cup was not always apparent.
Arsenal wasn't simply allowed to stroll into the quarter-finals by its fifth-tier hosts playing the biggest game in their 118-year history. Arsenal took 26 minutes to break through the dogged resistance, and then winning only 2-0 on Monday.
"If you are 2-0 down you don't want to get really hurt," Sutton manager Paul Doswell said. "The players should feel very proud. The problem in sport is when you have lost, you feel disappointed but they put this club on a worldwide map."
If global viewers tuned in for a cup giant-killing they didn't get it, but neither did they witness a rough humiliation for the south London side.
Apart from picking the ball out of his net twice, Sutton goalkeeper Ross Worner, a part-time picture framer for a sports memorabilia company who supports Arsenal, had few saves to make. Worner was beaten only by Lucas Perez, a 20 million-euro signing last year, and Theo Walcott, who turned the ball in from Nacho Monreal's cross 10 minutes into the second half for his 100th Arsenal goal.
Far from being in awe of a side of millionaire international players who arrived with personal bodyguards, Sutton constantly harried in the pursuit of a goal, and seised on misplaced passes by Arsenal players on an unfamiliar surface in front of 5,000 mostly standing fans.
Defeat would have been unthinkable for Arsene Wenger following a 5-1 loss at Bayern Munich in the Champions League which cast fresh doubt on the Arsenal manager's future.
"It was not an easy game at all — every little mistake we made, technically they took advantage of," Wenger said.
"I don't really enjoy tonight because we absolutely had to do the job and it is tricky. It is important for the confidence of the players."
Having avoided embarrassment, the 12-time FA Cup winners will face another fifth-tier side in the last eight. There won't be another tricky trip into unfamiliar territory, with 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium staging Lincoln City next month.
But Wenger is now more than aware just what a challenge a team from the National League can pose.
"That was astonishing," Wenger reflected on a night when his players had to squeeze into a cramped, sparse brown-walled concrete dressing room. "They never stopped going until the end, and compared to 20 years ago these teams are fit now and can play at the pace of the Premier League."
Sutton, placed 17th in the National League, was mobbed by its fans who invaded the field, having completed the game with its dignity more than intact.
"They kept going," Wenger said. "We were never really in a position where we could really afford to have a little breather."
Far from sitting camped inside its own half to frustrate Arsenal, Sutton ensured goalkeeper David Ospina would have to remain constantly alert. Only the crossbar denied Roarie Deacon, a former Arsenal youth team player, and captain Jamie Collins, a part-time construction worker, angled his header from a corner just too high.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Sutton's tenacity was Wenger bringing top-scorer Alexis Sanchez on in the second half.
"When I looked at my lads at 70 minutes and Sanchez has come on, it was a wonderful thing," Doswell said, "but I knew how tired they were. It was quite a cruel thing to do."
And yet even with Sanchez on the pitch, the Chilean Copa America winner could not net a 21st goal of the season.
"We could not afford a light team selection," Wenger said, "and that is why I came with basically all the players who were available because we couldn't afford to go out."
What Sutton can now afford is significant upgrades to its stadium, mostly to assist youth teams. This record-breaking journey deep into the FA Cup has earned the club, where many staff including the manager are volunteers, more than 1 million pounds ($1 million).
The only blot on the night was police having to intervene to stop brawling fans on the field at fulltime, and Sutton reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw eating a pie on the bench in a stunt that appeared to be linked to a betting company.
"Wayne has become this global superstar on the back of being 23-stone," Doswell said. "He's made that a chance to make some more media coverage off the back of it. I don't think it shows us in the best light."