HOWARD WILKINSON has delivered a new dent to the Worthington Cup's damaged reputation by admitting that tonight's third-round tie at Arsenal is a game Sunderland could do without.

Wilkinson will field an embryonic side as he looks to safeguard the fitness of senior players for the fight against relegation.

The Black Cats' squad is already depleted by injuries and manager Wilkinson is anxious to minimise the risk of lengthening the queue outside the treatment room.

Almost a month since he succeeded Peter Reid, Wilkinson is searching for his first win after a home defeat at the hands of West Ham was followed by successive 1-1 draws away to fellow Premiership strugglers Bolton and Charlton.

But while he would love to break his duck against the Gunners, Wilkinson is ambivalent about his side's ambitions.

"I haven't needed to have an attitude towards the competition until now, and at the moment I don't have an attitude long-term,'' said Wilkinson.

"But my thoughts about this week are that it's a game too much for some of my players in the circumstances.

"My horizon is very limited on this one, but it's obviously one we still want to win.

"We can win the Worthington Cup, we can win the FA Cup and we can succeed in the Premiership.

"The trick is trying to do it as effectively as possible across all three fronts and that's why I'm taking such a young squad to Arsenal.

"I hope the fans don't feel cheated.''

Wilkinson added: "The players have had a lot of draining games. We're working on fitness and trying to improve it, but that should not be seen as a criticism. We just need to look at every advantage we can take.

"Things are getting better. In six weeks' time I think we'll be better than we are now and in four or five months' time we'll be a lot better still.

"But we've started near the bottom of the ladder, so it's one rung at a time. People below us will be trying to pull us down and people above us will be stamping on our fingers.''

Kevin Phillips, easing his way back to fitness after a hernia operation, and Tore Andre Flo, who scored the opening goal at Charlton, are rested tonight as Wilkinson hands Kevin Kyle and Michael Proctor the chance to impress up front.

Proctor, recalled from a two-month loan with Bradford City, is in line to make his first senior start for the Wearsiders.

"Tore Andre responded to the challenge that I set him,'' said Wilkinson, who on his arrival at the Stadium of Light was unhappy with the fitness of the £8.2m club record buy.

"Neither he nor Kevin Phillips had a proper pre-season. Why give Kevin Phillips a game? What he needs now is to keep working to get fitter.

"If we'd taken him to Highbury, he would have lost Tuesday and Thursday as work days.

"If he stays here we can make sure he's a step closer to being right for Sunday's home game with Tottenham."

Wilkinson could hand fifth-choice goalkeeper Craig Turns, who turned 20 on Monday, a surprise first-team debut.

Thomas Sorensen and Thomas Myhre are injured, Michael Ingham is cup-tied after appearing in the competition for Stockport against Lincoln while on loan, and Wilkinson is eager to protect Jurgen Macho in the midst of what he admits is a "goalkeeping crisis''.

Mark Rossiter, 19, who can operate at full-back or in midfield, is poised to make his senior bow and Sean Thornton, signed from Tranmere in the summer for £225,000 is also contention for a debut.

Wilkinson will call on left-back George McCartney, utility man Darren Williams and winger Matt Piper, while former Arsenal midfielder Stefan Schwarz could return at his old haunt.

In making sweeping changes for such a game, Wilkinson is following the example of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who, like Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, has been accused of devaluing the competition by picking below-strength sides.

Wenger will stick with the policy, but that offers little comfort to Sunderland - who lost 3-1 at Arsenal in Reid's last match a month ago - with the likes of Player of the Year Robert Pires tipped to be in the Gunners' line-up.

Wilkinson said: "To get into Arsenal's first team, you have to be half-decent.

"I'm not assuming anything, but Jermaine Pennant and Francis Jeffers might play and there would be quite a few sides happy to have them available for their first team.''

Double-winners Arsenal achieved a fortunate win at Fulham on Sunday, through a Steve Marlet own goal, to end a run of four defeats in all competitions.

The shock sequence began when their record 30-match unbeaten Premiership run was halted by Everton.

Wilkinson confessed: "Their recent hiccup has surprised me enormously because, at the start of the season, I thought of all the teams who might win the title, they looked the most well-oiled. They just seemed to purr.

"If I wasn't a fan of Arsene's, I don't know what I would be. He's set tremendous standards.''

Sunderland's Stanislav Varga, transfer-listed by Reid, yesterday spoke of his hope of making his first appearance in nine months, even though Wilkinson had already insisted that neither he, nor fellow centre-back Emerson Thome - who hasn't figured since New Year's Day - would be considered for tonight's clash.