The most successful team in FA Cup history begin their quest for a record-extending 15th title on Monday night, as Arsenal travel to the Kassam Stadium to face League One side Oxford United. The Gunners suffered a third-round exit at the hands of Nottingham Forest last year, while the U’s were dumped out in round one by Bristol Rovers.Already bettering their performance from last year’s brief FA Cup run, Oxford have seen off Woking and Exeter City to put their name in the hat for a third-round glamour tie with Arsenal, although it will come as no surprise to learn that the U’s are yet to get their hands on the coveted prize.
However, the League One side have managed to progress beyond round three in three of the last six seasons – getting as far as the fifth round in 2016-17 before being eliminated by Middlesbrough – and the Kassam faithful should dare to dream of a historic giant killing. Oxford’s only win from their last eight FA Cup ties against Premier League opposition came against Swansea City in the 2015-16 third round, but recent form may not inspire confidence within Karl Robinson’s ranks, with just one win from their last five in all tournaments. The U’s entered 2023 on the wrong foot with a 1-0 defeat to Exeter City on New Year’s Day, with Sam Nombe scoring the only goal of the game on the 79-minute mark, leaving them 15th in the League One table with 29 points to their name from 24 outings.
Defeat to Exeter marked the end of a five-game unbeaten run for Oxford on home soil, and the hosts have also kept just a solitary clean sheet in their last 11 outings at the Kassam Stadium – something a prolific Arsenal crop will need no second invitation to exploit.Hosting third-placed Newcastle United on Tuesday night, Arsenal could have come away from the contest with a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. Instead, they departed with their lead cut back down to five points and an FA charge to their name.
The Magpies’ unwavering defence contributed to a deserved point for Eddie Howe’s side in a goalless draw, although Mikel Arteta and his players were left enraged when neither a handball against Jacob Murphy nor perceived tug on Gabriel Magalhaes by Dan Burn resulted in a penalty. Now having to answer an FA charge of failing to ensure their players acted in an orderly fashion, Arsenal nevertheless retain their unassailable lead at the top of the Premier League rankings and now set out to lift yet another FA Cup – potentially a fifth in the space of 10 seasons after becoming champions again in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020.
However, since defeating Chelsea in the 2020 final, Arsenal have been dumped out in the fourth round by Southampton and third round to Nottingham Forest, although all of the Gunners’ last 13 FA Cup games against teams in the third tier or below have ended in victory.
The Premier League leaders will also bring a three-game unbeaten run away from home into Monday’s clash, which sees Oxford and Arsenal reunite for the first time since the Gunners won an FA Cup third round tie 2-0 in the 2002-03 campaign, where they would eventually go on to lift the trophy.Oxford remain plagued by injury problems in the final third and remain without both Kyle Joseph and Sam Baldock, although Joseph’s ankle issue could let up in time for their clash with Fleetwood Town on January 14.
Marcus Browne is also expected to miss several more weeks with a hamstring injury, leaving Matty Taylor or 18-year-old Gatlin O’Donkor to spearhead the depleted attack. Further back, Robinson could hand a U’s debut to Hull City loanee Brandon Fleming, who has arrived on a short-term deal this month and may take up a place on the left-hand side.
As for Arsenal, Gabriel Jesus (knee) and Reiss Nelson (thigh) remain on the sidelines, but Arteta is hopeful that Emile Smith Rowe will be able to make his first appearance since September as he battles back from groin surgery. Smith Rowe should only make the bench at best, though, as Arsenal prepare to ring the changes ahead of next weekend’s North London derby with Tottenham Hotspur, starting with Matt Turner replacing Aaron Ramsdale in goal. Rob Holding, Fabio Vieira, Mohamed Elneny, Marquinhos and Albert Sambi Lokonga could also apply for places in the first XI, but Cedric Soares may not be involved as Fulham try to strike a deal for the Portuguese right-back.
Captain Elliot Moore is usually partnered in defence by one-time capped Scottish international Stuart Findlay, who arrived in the summer from Philadelphia Union. Left-back Ciaron Brown has two caps for Northern Ireland and Djanvan Anderson is a right-back previously on the books of Ajax, AZ Alkmaar and Lazio. Long-serving midfielders Cameron Brannagan and James Henry have both played over 200 times for the club, with the former leading the goalscoring charts this term with nine strikes. Winger Bodin is next up with seven, who appeared once for Wales back in 2019.
Former Hale End graduate Marcus McGuane features in midfield, who played twice for us before moving to Barcelona in 2018. Wide midfielder Josh Murphy is the twin brother of Newcastle United’s Jacob, and Lewis Bate has impressed on loan from Leeds United.”It’s always tricky, I’ve played there a few times and have experienced very difficult matches, so it will be difficult. We have to take the competition and the opponent very seriously and play well, to a high level to win the match. “From what we’ve seen they’ve played in different ways, and result-wise as well they’ve had a bit of everything. It’ll be a very special night and everybody will raise their level and it will be tough.” – read every word from his pre-match press conference
Robinson: “This gives us a slight distraction from our league form, but if anybody watched our performances in the league for the last seven or eight games, we’ve been good. “I’m sure the quality of Arsenal can knock us off our rhythm very quickly. We’ll have complete and upper respect for them, just like we have respect for Fleetwood the following week. We’ve just got to make sure we worry about ourselves, with the total respect we have for the opposition.”