18 February ~ Sunderland's injury-time defeat to Arsenal last weekend was slightly disappointing but not too difficult to cope with. Having been on top-three form since Martin O'Neill arrived in December, it felt about time we lost a game. Yet if we fail against the same opponents in the FA Cup today it will be much harder to take. Arsenal are not the force they once were, but they remain tough opponents, not least because they are so unpredictable. Theo Walcott can look menacing and direct, or panicky and confused. While Arsène Wenger played the magnanimous winner last week – after changing the game with his substitutions – he can also appear sour, isolated and powerless, as he did in Milan on Wednesday.
Perhaps for this very reason Sunderland seemed to overestimate their opponents last weekend. O'Neill came in for some very minor criticism after playing 4-5-1 at home, a formation that stifled Sunderland's own attacking threat. That is slightly unfair – the team had ground out an extra-time fourth-round win over Middlesbrough only three days earlier and were quite clearly exhausted.
This weekend it is Arsenal who have had an intense midweek experience. The 4-0 humiliation and dreadful performance against AC Milan must have had a mentally sapping effect, as well as a physical one. Sunderland supporters have been debating whether this is good or bad for tomorrow.
Will Wenger want to win the FA Cup this season now the Champions League is all but over? Maybe they need to concentrate on a top-four position in the Premier League instead? As with most pre-match conjecture, all this will have a limited effect after kick-off, but this is set up to be an intriguing game.
Sunderland, barring any of the regular collapses that happened under Steve Bruce, should be safe from relegation. Finishing higher than eighth also seems unlikely, as does catching Newcastle. So a Cup run is a source of obvious excitement.
A win would also bring extra rewards. As the supporter of any team outside the very top of the Premier League knows, the schadenfreude in making things more difficult for those overblown clubs is an immensely satisfying feeling.
Piers Morgan tweeted this week: "If it's 'fickle' to think six years without a trophy, probably soon to be seven, is not acceptable for a club like Arsenal – then I plead fickle" and: "So utterly, gut-wrenchingly depressed about Arsenal – just don't see where Wenger, great man though he is, takes us now."
Let us hope that O'Neill plays more than one up front this week and we can extend Arsenal's trophy "drought" and deepen the "crisis" at the Emirates that little bit more. Ed Upright