MARCUS STEWART struck twice in as many minutes as Howard Wilkinson claimed his first win as Sunderland manager in sensational fashion at Highbury.

With a catalogue of injuries and a Premiership relegation battle looming, this Worthington Cup third-round tie was, by his own admission, a game Wilkinson didn't want.

But he had revised his opinion on Wednesday night after his side fought back from 2-0 down to register an unfortgettable triumph - their first here for 19 years.

An 11th-minute opener from Robert Pires, followed by a Francis Jeffers goal in the 33rd minute, looked to be leading an experimental Sunderland side to the traditional Highbury trouncing.

But Kevin Kyle headed home his first senior goal for the club 11 minutes after the break before Stewart's double devastated the Gunners.

The former Ipswich striker nodded in Michael Proctor's left-wing cross in the 70th minute.

And within two minutes Stewart used his head to good effect again, this time on the end of substitute Matt Piper's centre from the right.

Wilkinson had made nine changes to the side that started Sunday's 1-1 draw at Charlton, while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger fielded an entirely different team to the one that started the 1-0 win away to Fulham.

Sunderland had conceded in the first five minutes of each of their last four visits here - and ended up letting in 12 goals in the process.

They should have been behind after three minutes this time when Kolo Toure headed over from close range on the end of Jermaine Pennant's inswinging left-wing corner.

But the goal wasn't long in coming. The Gunners forced another flag-kick on the left and Giovanni van Bronckhorst, back in their line-up after a lengthy lay-off with a cruciate injury, rolled the ball into the path of the unmarked Pires who fired in first time from the edge of the penalty area.

It was too easy, and a second almost followed two minutes later when Jeffers centred from the right for Kanu, who just failed to apply a finishing touch at the near post as the ball flashed across goal.

Jeffers was then played in by Pires but the former Everton striker's shot on the turn was straight at keeper Jurgen Macho.

Wilkinson handed a first senior start to striker Proctor following his recall from a successful two-month loan spell with First Division Bradford City, and a full debut to full-back Mark Rossiter, who had been pulled out of the Republic of Ireland Under-19 squad.

And Proctor was denied a goal by an offside flag in only the 16th minute after a Kyle miskick had skewed the ball to the feet of his strike partner.

Sunderland were two down shortly after the half-hour mark. Kanu, who had scored twice in the first eight minutes when Arsenal beat the Wearsiders 3-1 a month earlier in Peter Reid's last game in charge, hurdled the challenge of former Gunner Stefan Schwarz on halfway to slide a measured ball to the breaking Jeffers.

Left-back George McCartney went in hot pursuit, but it was a lost cause as Jeffers outpaced the Northern Ireland international to knock the ball beyond Macho.

Arsenal centre-back Igors Stepanovs gave his defence an anxious moment in the 39th minute when he directed the ball narrowly wide of the near post with an outstretched leg from Rossiter's right-wing cross.

But the Gunners threatened a third goal just before the interval, Pennant crossing from the right and Danish Youth midfielder Sebastian Svard connecting with a header which was dealt with well by Macho.

Contrary to his original declaration, Wilkinson elected to bank on the experience of Emerson Thome and Stanislav Varga at the heart of defence.

But he might have been regretting his decision to include Thome - the Brazilian was making his first appearance since New Year's Day after serious knee trouble - when he lost possession to Jeffers, who rushed his shot and fired wide with time to do better.

Sunderland showed they had been working on their notoriously inept set-pieces when Paul Thirlwell's right-wing corner was flicked on by Stewart at the near post and only a timely hook clear from Stepanovs stopped Kyle from heading goalward.

But exactly the same routine paid off minutes later, and this time Kyle made it count as he nodded in from inside the six-yard box.

The goal gave Sunderland immediate impetus and Proctor escaped to drill a drive which Stuart Taylor was happy to get his body behind.

Varga was then guilty of a similar slip to Thome, but Macho brought off a superb save from van Bronckhorst.

The off-key Kanu missed his second open goal of the night when he arrived a shade too late to meet Pennant's low centre.

And such profligacy proved costly as Sunderland launched an astonishing comeback.