Arsenal 0 – 0 Sunderland
Arsenal’s rise to the Premier League summit stumbled yesterday, a mixture of their own performance, another outstanding goalkeeping display by the visiting custodian and bumbling officials contributing to a disappointing result. Disappointing but not disastrous. Even if Manchester United win this afternoon, the true gap is still three points.
A slow start deprived Arsenal of an early goal, Sunderland had two early chances, Malbranque and Bardsley both missing the target. The latter’s miss seemed to provide the spark for the home side. Crisp passing found Clichy on the left, his cross narrowly evading Bentdner’s lunge, Nasri thumped his effort into Mignolet’s chest. It was not the first time during the proceedings that a shot would fly comfortably at the Belgian.
A pattern for the remaining seventy minutes was struck when Szczesny saved well from Sessegnon and Malbranque was culpable once more when Djourou closed down a potential chance. The match was going to be incessant Arsenal pressure, interspersed with sporadic Sunderland raids.
Wilshere threatened to break the deadlock before the first half’s best chance for Arsenal went begging. Djourou flicked on a corner, Bendtner acrobatically shot, the ball landing once more on Mignolet’s chest. If the Dane had been denied by a routine save then, Mignolet’s next intervention was more athletic.
Bendtner latched onto Jack Wilshere’s sublimely chipped pass and lashed a powerful, dipping half volley goalwards. The Sunderland ‘keeper arced his back and his fingertips deflected the ball over the bar for a corner.
The second half descended into a dogged affair from kick-off. With fifteen minutes of scrapping passed, Wenger changed things around with Denilson making way for Chamakh. It opened the game out and gave more attacking options.
Denilson is an enigma. Having started as a defensive midfielder, his first team breakthrough was in a more attacking role. His performance yesterday was not his greatest yet he did little wrong. With Arsenal on the front foot for most of the game, the Brazilian needed to provide a barrier in the centre of the pitch to midfield raids by the visitors. That they utilised the flanks more was an indication of their route to the Arsenal goal.
Chamakh almost made an immediate impact. Breaking free on the right, he crossed for Arshavin, the Russian’s shot was straight at Mignolet, the Belgian beating the shot away. A foot or two to the goalkeeper’s right and the power of the shot would surely have beaten the Sunderland goalkeeper.
Mignolet was proving a stubborn barrier and with eighteen minutes to go, he would once more deny Arsenal when Koscielny was scythed down on the edge of the area. Nasri curled the ensuing free-kick toward the top corner, Mignolet putting a firm palm on the ball, his defenders completing the clearance from the central third of the penalty area.
Mignolet would be beaten before the final whistle though, rescued on both occasions to keep a clean sheet. Firstly Chamakh’s powerful header rattled the inside of the post and secondly, when Arshavin appeared to beat the offside trap to score, he was denied by the flag of the Referee’s Assistant.
The decision was as controversial as the penalty denied when Bramble blatantly shoved Arshavin in the second half. Whilst the offside was a matter of interpretation, the denial of a penalty was baffling. Arshavin broke through, Bramble started pulling the Russian’s shirt outside of the area.
As the Arsenal striker shot, Bramble’s apparent stumble caused him to fall with outstretched arms into the Russian’s back, forcing Arshavin off balance. With Bramble having been committing a foul outside of the area, there is no rational belief that he stumbled inside, the defender dived deliberately at Arshavin hoping for the contact to appear accidental.
Szczesny preserved the point with a stretching save from Wellbeck before the ball hit the Pole’s chest following Henderson’s shot.
In his post-match interview the Arsenal manager credited Sunderland for their defending whilst offering that his own side lacked creativity. Fàbregas was sorely missed as was van Persie although it is hard to say definitively whether either would have made the telling difference.
For Arsène, attention turns to the Camp Nou. Wilshere is out of training for ‘one or two days‘ but it seems unlikely that he will not play in the Champions League, especially with Walcott and van Persie definitely out.
What is of more concern is sound of thousands of towels wafting through the air as cornermen around the globe concede the title race. It is completely bemusing for the negativity surrounding the result to be taken to that extreme. With a gap of three points, Arsenal will be level if they beat United at home in eight weeks time. By then, the roles might be reversed with the visitors needing points to close a gap. Who knows? Defeatism is simply not necessary or acceptable.