LONDON, United Kingdom, Feb 19 – A plastic pitch, a vulnerable heavyweight and minnows with giant-killing pedigree could conspire to produce one of the great FA Cup shocks when Arsenal visit non-league Sutton United on Monday.
Arsenal approach the fifth-round tie reeling from Wednesday’s 5-1 humiliation by Bayern Munich and with manager Arsene Wenger closer to the exit door than ever before.
Sutton stunned Coventry City, FA Cup winners 19 months previously, in 1989 and Micky Stephens, who played in that game and is now assistant manager, says they will approach Monday’s match with a similar mentality.
“It’s very difficult to stop them, but you don’t want to give the players too much information,” he told AFP this week.
“I didn’t want to know too much when I played against Coventry. I wanted to know about the weaknesses, but not the strengths of the Coventry players.
“Everyone will know their strengths. All we can ask of our players is that they do their best.”
Sutton currently sit 17th in the fifth tier, 105 places below Arsenal in the English football pyramid, and have reached the fifth round for the first time.
Their National League counterparts Lincoln City have shown them the way, having beaten Burnley 1-0 on Saturday to become the first team from outside England’s top four divisions to reach the last eight since 1914.
Sutton entered the tournament in the first round in November and have already upset fourth-tier Cheltenham Town, third-tier AFC Wimbledon and Championship promotion-chasers Leeds United.
Their down-at-heel Gander Green Lane ground in south London will be at its 5,000 capacity on Monday for a game that will present Arsenal with the unusual challenge of playing on a synthetic 3G pitch.
It will be a particularly special occasion for Sutton trio Craig Eastmond, Roarie Deacon and Jeffrey Monakana, all of whom came through the youth ranks at Arsenal.
Eastmond, 26, was the only one to reach the first team, making 10 appearances between 2009 and 2013 and playing alongside current Arsenal regulars Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs.
– Amazed by Arsenal –
“I will be nervous before the game because I am an Arsenal fan through and through,” said Eastmond, who returns from a three-game suspension.
“I never thought I would play Arsenal, but that is part of being a footballer and playing against a team you support.
“As a team we would obviously like to win. We are not going to come here on Monday, look at the Arsenal players and be like ‘Oh my days’ and be amazed by them.”
Jack Jebb also spent time on Arsenal’s books, but he — like Ben Jefford and Craig Dundas — is cup-tied.
Wenger confirmed this week that he will make a decision regarding his Arsenal future in March or April.
The heavy loss in Munich left the north London club on the brink of a seventh successive last 16 exit in the Champions League and they trail leaders Chelsea by 10 points in the Premier League.
But while it is 13 years since Wenger last led Arsenal to league glory, FA Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2015 left him level with Aston Villa’s George Ramsay as the competition’s most decorated manager on six wins each.
While neutrals will relish the thought of Arsenal’s handsomely renumerated stars squeezing into Sutton’s poky away changing room, Wenger is grateful to have another game to focus on.
“I think the future gives you hope and the next game is part of the future,” he said.
“I do not want to talk anymore about my personal situation. What is important is the next game. We had a big disappointment, we lost, and we want to win the next game.”
Arsenal are expected to be without centre-back Laurent Koscielny after he limped off with a hamstring injury at Bayern.
But with no mid-week game to follow, Wenger has indicated he will select a strong team.