The Gunners failed to break down a determined Black Cats outfit...
A resilient Black Cats performance ensured that Arsene Wenger’s side endured a frustrating stalemate in north London, allowing Sir Alex Ferguson’s side the chance to move six points clear away to Liverpool tomorrow afternoon.
The Gunners may well lament the decisions of referee Anthony Taylor and his assistants after they ruled out an Andrey Arshavin goal for offside despite the Russian international looking to be behind the last defender when the ball was played.
The hosts started, somewhat inevitably, with a much-changed side from their demolition of League One Leyton Orient in the FA Cup in midweek and there was no suggestion that Wenger was looking ahead to the Gunners’ trip to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona on Tuesday. It appeared that Arsenal’s focus was solely on Sunderland.
Steve Bruce made only the one change to the team that went down 2-0 to Everton at Goodison Park last weekend in an effort to stop what seems like an ever-worsening rot, with Steed Malbranque replacing Ahmed Elmohamady in the Black Cats’ midfield.
The visitors started with an admirable willingness to attack their hosts and despite the team sheet suggesting otherwise, Arsenal looked very much like a side with their mind on other things, with Denilson carelessly giving the ball away to Stephane Sessegnon within the first 60 seconds only for the Frenchman to waste possession on the right wing. It was a display of nerves that would offer Steve Bruce's side early confidence at the Emirates.It proved to be justifiably so and as the game neared its 10 minute mark, both sides were proving capable of danger in and around their counterpart's box, though it was the hosts that created a chance to worry Steve Mignolet. Arshavin slipping a fine ball through to midweek hat-trick hero Bendtner but the Dane, usually so assured with his touch, saw the ball bounce from his shin and eventually harmlessly into the arms of the Belgian 'keeper.
Arsenal, to their credit, began to settle in the middle of the park and for all of Sunderland's vigour in midfield, the Gunners were beginning to find ominous-looking gaps in behind the Black Cats bank of five, the most notable exploited by Jack Wilshere only for the youngster to slice an effort wide of the left-hand post.
Twenty minutes came and went in the first half as both sides, sensing the magnitude of this clash ahead of the Premier League run-in, cancelled each other out. There was no suggestion of Sunderland respecting Arsene Wenger's side too much and it was arguably the Wearsiders who were looking the more likely to break the deadlock.
It was, if anything, a case of role reversal, with the famed attacking prowess of the home side more evident from Sunderland though it was a sense of adventure met by a defensively solid Gunners outfit, led superbly by Johan Djourou and the Swiss youngster proved his worth sliding impeccably to dispossess Malbranque in the box. It was a tackle that needed inch perfect timing and it was delivered with consummate ease.
The game was lacking in fluidity and as frustration grew from the magnificent Emirates stands, it emanated onto the pitch, with neither side able to deliver a ball that was to unlock an opener and the endeavour of both sides in the opening exchanges had become laboured with half-time approaching.
The hosts knew that something special would be required in order to break down Sunderland's imposing defensive unit and Nasri, as has been the case throughout the campaign, so nearly delivered. Collecting the ball just inside the Black Cats' half, the Frenchman jinked and jived though the Sunderland defence only to take himself to the byline, were options were too hard to come by.
The crowd were on their feet, marvelling at Nasri's and as the resulting corner came in, Bendtner met a superb overhead kick, only to see it fall into the grateful hands of Mignolet.
The Dane was looking ever more dangerous as half time neared and he so nearly gave his side the lead, only for his glory to be spoiled by some world-class goalkeeping. Collecting a Wilshere ball from over the top, Bendtner controlled delightfully and from a ludicrously tight angle, lashed a half volley towards the top corner only to see Mignolet somehow meet it with one, possibly vital hand.
Wenger is not known for his blistering half-time rants but Arsenal's vigour at the beginning of the second 45 minutes suggested that his players had been reminded in no uncertain terms of the importance of the fixture. However, in the face of a typically solid Sunderland defence, their endeavour wasn't being rewarded with clear-cut chances.
Steve Bruce's side were in no way playing to shut Arsenal out and Gyan, with a pace that alarmed the Gunners defenders throughout was himself proving to be a thorn in the side of the Emirates' outfit, swiftly darting from marker to marker. He was, very much like his side as a whole, a nuisance to which Arsenal had no means of extinguishing.
As the hour mark passed, the game was becoming a turgid affair, with neither side able to maintain a period of possession and Wenger cut a disconsolate figure in the technical area, lamenting his side's inability to break down Sunderland in and around the box. Sensing that his side needed a catalyst, Wenger blinked first, removing Denilson and bringing on Marouane Chamakh who was looking for his first Premier League goal since November.
The Moroccan nearly provided instant impact, collecting the ball on the right-hand-side and hitting a ball, a little heavily, into the feet of Arshavin only for the Russian to waste his effort just inside the box, with Mignolet beating away the forward's effort.
The scriptwriters then prepared their magic with 20 minutes remaining, with Manchester United loanee Danny Welbeck replacing Malbranque to make his first appearance in 7 games for Sunderland. Arsenal on the other hand were applying pressure with an increasing sense of urgency, Nasri so nearly breaking the deadlock only for, once again, Mignolet to save the visitors.
The waves of Arsenal attacks were growing in their ferocity and only five minutes later, Chamakh looked all the world to have found the sought-after opener, his header beating Mignolet only for it to come crashing off the bar. Sunderland were weathering the storm but the hosts scented blood.
If anybody was panicking however, it was the home side. All too aware of the significance of the final 10 minutes, the Gunners pushed forward and may well have had a penalty, with Arshavin breaking through from Nasri's pass and bouncing off a heavy handed push from Titus Bramble, fired wide. Appeals from the hosts were few and far between but it certainly provided an interesting angle to an already enthralling script.
The controversy had in no way ended there however and Sunderland were once again the beneficiaries of Anthony Taylor's whistle after Arshavin, who picked up the ball one-on-one with Mignolet was flagged for offside. He wasn't and the incredulity etched on the face of Wenger was certainly justified.
The Gunners pressed harder with an increased sense of desperation though the breakthrough never came, with stoppage time chances from Wilshere and Bendtner flattering to deceive.
Greater tests may be on Arsenal’s immediate horizon but Sunderland offered the quality to prove themselves much more than a dress rehearsal. Lines were indeed fluffed on occasion and as the final whistle blew, Gunners minds turned to Barcelona having delivered a performance hardly befitting a side that continues to chase on three fronts.