Arsenal begin their defence of the FA Cup with a home tie against Sam Allardyce's Sunderland.
No manager has lifted this trophy more than Arsene Wenger, who now has six winners' medals in his private cabinet. The Gunners have won the cup in each of the last two seasons and will now be eager to complete a historic achievement by making it a hat-trick.
It will be a huge task for Sunderland to stop them. Arsenal have now not lost in their last 12 FA Cup games. With these two teams operating at opposite ends of the Premier League table, it would require a significant shock for the Black Cats to progress. However, if there's one thing the FA Cup guarantees, it's surprises.
Date: Saturday, January 9
Time: 3 p.m. GMT/10 a.m. ET
Location: Emirates Stadium, London
Television coverage: FOX Sports 1 (U.S. only)
Streaming: Fox Soccer 2 Go (U.S. only)
W (0-2) vs. Aston Villa
W (2-1) vs. Manchester City
L (4-0) vs. Southampton
W (2-0) vs. Bournemouth
W (1-0) vs. Newcastle
L (0-1) vs. Watford
L (3-1) vs. Chelsea
L (4-1) vs. Manchester City
L (0-1) vs. Liverpool
W (3-1) vs. Aston Villa
Although the Premier League is Arsenal's priority, Wenger insists that his team will not take this cup tie lightly. He told Arsenal.com:
We want to win every competition we participate in. The FA Cup is one of them, for us it is an important competition. Confidence is a global thing and you can’t really separate it from one competition to another.
My energy is about giving absolutely everything to win the next game. The next game is the FA Cup. For us it is a very important competition as always.
This is a serious competition. I've won the FA Cup six times—that means I take it seriously. In the whole history, nobody won it more. That means as well that it’s not so easy to win it. You want to feel as well that your team is ready for every single challenge and the FA Cup is one that matters to us.
Unsurprisingly, Allardyce is somewhat more pragmatic in his views. He is very clear that survival matters more to Sunderland than any potential cup run, telling Football365:
It’s always the Premier League. We are in the bottom three and that makes our status in the Premier League the most important thing – and this is the club priority, this is the priority from Ellis Short downwards.
The emphasis at this football club, at every football club I have been at and every owner I have worked for says we have to stay and we have to be in the Premier League for next season.
That’s always the first priority, notwithstanding we all love the FA Cup, we’d all love to do exceptionally well in it. But look, if you win the FA Cup, like Wigan did and who now find themselves in League One having been relegated after winning that FA Cup… This club cannot afford that.
With morale at Sunderland fragile after their difficult start to the season, the Black Cats would hardly welcome a sobering defeat. It's important they perform well to continue their momentum after beating Aston Villa last weekend.
However, every Sunderland fan would surely admit that three Premier League points would be more valuable to them than progression to the FA Cup fourth round.
Despite suggestions he would be ready for this game, Alexis Sanchez is still out with a hamstring problem. Perhaps Wenger is simply trying to avoid rushing the Chilean back into action. With daunting league trips to Liverpool and Stoke to come, they'll need their star forward at his electric best.
However, a couple of South Americans could come back into the side as Wenger looks to rotate his squad a little. David Ospina is likely to return in goal, while Gabriel Paulista could earn a start at centre-half.
Wenger might also look to rotate the full-backs as he seeks to inject freshness into an Arsenal XI wearied by the draining festive period. With Mathieu Debuchy out of favour, this could be a chance for Calum Chambers to readjust to the right-back spot.
Up top, Wenger could take the chance to afford Olivier Giroud some much-needed rest, instead returning Theo Walcott to his preferred central role.
Predicted Arsenal XI (4-2-3-1): David Ospina; Calum Chambers, Gabriel Paulista, Laurent Koscielny; Kieran Gibbs; Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey; Joel Campbell, Mesut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Theo Walcott
Allardyce is without five senior players for this trip to the Emirates Stadium. The list of absentees includes their new signing from Bayern Munich, Jan Kirchhoff, who is not yet ready to make his debut in English football. The former Bolton boss will also be without defender Younes Kaboul (hamstring) and midfielder Sebastian Larsson (knee).
Sunderland are expected to play a strong side, although there could be a place for promising goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. The youngster is a bright prospect and England youth international and, after a number of loan spells, is expected to be handed a chance to shine on the big stage at Arsenal.
Predicted Sunderland XI (4-5-1): Jordan Pickford; Billy Jones, John O'Shea, Sebastian Coates, Patrick van Aanholt; Duncan Watmore, Lee Cattermole, Yann M'vila, Adam Johnson, Fabio Borini; Jermain Defoe
Players to watch
Arsenal: David Ospina
Just 12 months ago, Ospina was called into the first team for the FA Cup third-round tie against Hull City. He never really left the team. With Wojciech Szczesny out of favour, Ospina was able to establish himself as Arsenal's new No. 1.
That seems unlikely to happen this season, with Petr Cech now Wenger's undisputed first choice. Nevertheless, this is an important opportunity for Ospina to remind the Gunners boss of his credentials. Perhaps he may even see it as a chance to put himself in the shop window, as an international goalkeeper is unlikely to be content being a back-up for too long.
Sunderland: Jermain Defoe
The 33-year-old Defoe is enjoying a new lease of life in the north-east. He is currently thriving in an unfamiliar role as a lone striker and has won the respect of a manager who initially appeared unwilling to use him in that role. Allardyce admitted to Louise Taylor of the Guardian:
There’s always been a belief that maybe he can’t play up front on his own but he’s played on his own a couple of times for me now and I’m more than willing to continue down that line.
If he can continue being as good, and as clinical as he was last weekend, then long may it last. It’s a change of style of play for us where we have to work to get Jermain on the end of the buildup. Normally, a general centre-forward playing on his own will hold up the ball up and be someone to break off from but, with Jermain, you have to adjust your style of play a little bit.
As a former Spurs man, Defoe would like nothing more than to put Arsenal to the sword on Saturday.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.
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