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Arsène Wenger has another defeat to haunt him during the sleepless nights that will accompany the inquest into yet another trophy-less Arsenal campaign.

Sunderland can dream of Wembley after a richly deserved victory. Wenger said he will never forget Arsenal’s 4-0 Champions League humiliation against AC Milan, so embarrassed was he by team’s performance. This defeat will have been every bit as painful.

Sunderland were strong, belligerent, hardworking and disciplined, but they are not a Champions League side and they are not a European giant like Milan.

Arsenal used to swat teams like theirs aside with arrogant and ruthless disdain, now they flap at them and get stung.

To blame Wenger is tempting. He has defended his players for months, if not years, against accusations they lack the spirit and fortitude to win when the pressure is on.

He has stubbornly refused to spend money on experienced stars and baulked at the asking price for players like Gary Cahill and Scott Parker when he had the chance to sign them in the summer.

But Wenger’s record stands up to scrutiny, the character and track record of the players who have let him down so badly does not. They are to blame, not the manager.

This was a dark day for the Gunners, but a wonderful one for Sunderland and their inspirational leader Martin O’Neill. With Arsenal joining Manchester United and City on the FA Cup exit list, this is a competition the Black

Cats could win if they continue to play as they have done since he took over as manager.

Given Arsenal were still licking their wounds from their mauling in Milan, O’Neill might have chosen to attack vulnerable opponents in the hope of exposing their fragile confidence, but erred towards caution in his team selection with a five-man midfield and Stephane Sessegnon operating as a lone striker.

There was no change in system for Arsenal either, although there were casualties from that awful night in the San Siro as Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky were dropped to the bench, possibly exposing Wenger’s thoughts on who was to blame for that calamity.

The visitors started purposefully, but further alterations were needed within ten minutes when left-back Francis Coqulin collapsed with a torn hamstring.

The sight of Sebastien Squillaci running on as his replacement will not have filled the travelling support with much confidence and Sunderland capitalised on their unease.

A Mikel Arteta free-kick had Simon Mignolet scrambling across his goal line before curling wide, but Sunderland began to impose themselves and Alex Song was fortunate – as Per Mertesacker had been in the league fixture last weekend – not to give away a penalty when Seb Larsson’s corner skimmed off James McClean’s head and hit his hand.

A Sessegnon shot went close as the home side pushed Arsenal back into their own half, but while they were rattled, crucially the Londoners did not concede during that spell of Sunderland dominance.

Survival instincts intact, Arsenal almost took the lead with just under half an hour played, Robin van Persie sliding the ball through for Gervinho on his return from the African Cup of Nations, but Mignolet kept his rising shot out with his fingertips.

In their next attack, Van Persie felt he should have been awarded a penalty when John O’Shea tackled him from behind, although the defender did get a foot on the ball before the striker tripped over his leg.

It could have been a platform for them to take control of the game, but they were behind moments later in a goal that once again exposed a wobbly defence.

Johan Djourou should not have allowed Craig Gardner to charge down his clearance and, with the ball spinning towards the touchline, he did not need to pull his shirt.

From the resulting free-kick, Kieran Richardson latched on to a defensive header and his shot found the back of the net via a slight deflection off Squillaci.

It was the worst possible position for the Gunners to be in, chasing the game against a Sunderland side which had been able to rest in midweek and designed with containment in mind.

Roy Keane’s verdict as a television pundit at half-time was that he was watching “the worst Arsenal side” he had seen “and which was “letting their manager down” just as badly as they had in midweek. It was hard to argue with him.

Their response at the start of the second was unconvincing, Bacary Sagna fouling McClean on the edge of the area, setting up set-piece specialist

Larsson for a free-kick which just failed to dip enough as it landed on the roof of the net.

A wild shot from Arteta hinted at the panic spreading in Arsenal’s ranks. Wenger responded by sending on Rosicky and Walcott for Aaron Ramsey and the injured Squillaci.

It did nothing to lift his side, Sunderland going close again when Michael Turner headed another Larsson free-kick over the bar after Thomas Vermaelen had gone in hard and late on Gardner.

At least the Belgian looked willing to fight against the dying of the Arsenal light. So did van Persie, the skipper’s free-kick heading for goal before Phil Bardsley got a vital touch to divert it wide.

Arsenal looked desperate and Sunderland cut them to shreds on the counter, Sessegnon showing strength and awareness to play in Larsson. His shot hit the post, but Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain put the rebound into his own net. It summed Arsenal’s evening up.

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