By Richard Clarke
Arsenal stormed back to the top of the Premier League table with a 3-2 win over Sunderland at Emirates Stadium on Sunday - but they were made to work so hard to do it.
Arsène Wenger's side seemed set to stroll towards their 10th straight win when Robin van Persie and Philippe Senderos put them 2-0 ahead after only 14 minutes. However Ross Wallace reduced the arrears 10 minutes later and the excellent Kenwyn Jones levelled the game with a storming header just after the restart.
Emirates Stadium was beset by anxiety for most of the second half before substitute Theo Walcott set up Van Persie for the winner 10 minutes from time. In the closing seconds, Paul McShane received a straight red card for a clumsy challenge on Alex Hleb.
It was hardly the finale the game deserved. This had been another cracking encounter. Arsenal had shown their trademark flair, some fragility and then, just perhaps, a little title-winning resilience. Sunderland had suggested they were rightful relegation candidates at the start but belied their position during the middle portion of the game.
Arsenal had perhaps 'won ugly' at West Ham and Steaua, this was quite the opposite.
It takes all sorts to win a title.
There was only one change from the side that had won so efficiently in Romania on Tuesday. Abou Daiby came back on the left, Alex Hleb switched to the right and Emmanuel Eboue returned to the bench.
Arsenal's last two games had been fraught 1-0s in which the defences held sway. Right from the first whistle, this game was never going to be like that.
Exactly 23 seconds had elapsed before Arsenal had their first sight of goal. Van Persie sent Adebayor clear in the right-hand channel but the Togolese striker blazed his shot over the bar.
Although Arsenal continued to pressure, Jones pushed Gael Clichy into an error in the opening minutes but the burly striker fouled Manuel Almunia as the Spanish keeper attempted to clear and was booked.
To be honest it was an isolated foray into the Arsenal penalty area. The home looked like scoring every time they went forward and the first goal would not be long in coming.
The move started with Hleb and Adebayor playing keep-ball in the Sunderland area. The ball was moved wide and then back on to the right. The Togo striker cut it back and Grant Leadbitter nudged over Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the area.
Referee Rob Styles blew for the free-kick. However Arsenal played on and Diaby planted a stunning drive into the top left-hand corner of the net and beyond the despairing dive of Craig Gordon. Of course it did not count, however, seconds later, the resulting free-kick was whipped in viciously by Van Persie. It flew into the same corner of the net off the underside of the bar.
It was the Dutchman's sixth of the season and his third in consecutive games.
Adebayor then sent in a powerful header as Arsenal looked to extend their lead. They would do that seconds later. But if their first had been a thing of beauty this one was a scrappy affair.
Fabregas' left-wing corner should have been cleared by Jones but the striker screwed the ball back toward his own keeper. It was eventually scuffed wide to Adebayor who, once again, cut the ball back into the area. Diaby missed his backheel but the ball fell to Senderos, whose off-balance, bobbling shot beat Gordon and limped over the line. It was his third goal in his 92nd game for the club.
In the 19th minute Arsenal thought they had a third when Hleb's cross was missed by Fabregas but rammed home by Diaby at the far post. However the assistant referee ruled that the initial ball from the Belarus midfielder had seen his Spanish colleague offside. It was a marginal decision.
Arsenal were strolling. They were attacking at will and Sunderland seemingly could do little about it.
So the fatalists among you will not be surprised to read that it was at this point that the visitors scored.
Dwight Yorke pumped a long ball forward, Jones controlled it expertly on the corner of the area, held off Clichy so Almunia had to rush out to block. The ball bounced out to Wallace on just inside the area and, with the keeper still out of position, he had the relatively simple job of slotting the ball home.
Liam Miller had a couple of half-chances to put Sunderland in the unlikely position of level terms.
However just past the half-hour, Gordon tipped over from a rocket-shot but Van Persie from 30 yards. When the resulting corner was swung over to the far post, Senderos has escaped his marker but, inexplicably, he nodded the ball wide
Arsenal maintained control as half-time approached but the goal had rocked them. Wenger's team had played so well this season and this game had seemed so straightforward in the first 20 minutes. But it had turned into a tough test.
It got a lot tougher four minutes after the break when Sunderland worked a good position on the left, Miller curled in a cross and the Jones sent a towering header past Almunia. The keeper got a hand on it but only succeeded in pushing the ball in off the post.
Van Persie's shot deflected off Danny Collins and Sunderland breathed a sigh of relief as the ball trickled wide then, just before the hour, Kolo Toure hammered in an effort from 30 yards. It beat the diving Gordon, smacked off the inside of the post and away to safety.
Arsenal's game was now imperative and attacking. However there were plenty of gaps for Sunderland to exploit as well.
The final 20 minutes had all the hall-marks of the final throws of a FA Cup Third Round tie - sinews were being stretched, nerves were being frayed and formations were being flexed to breaking point.
In their desperation, Arsenal began to dominated once more. They were, at least, creating again but the old habit of spurning chances then had come back with avengence.
Fabregas passed when he should have shot, Van Persie blazed wide and then in the 77th minute Hleb drove into the area superbly before setting up Walcott at the far post. The unmarked winger miscued his effort with the goal at his mercy.
Walcott redeemed himself by setting up the winner. Ten minutes from time he collected a pass from Eboue, skipped past his marker and squared for Van Persie thump home from close range.
Sunderland were not spent however. Almunia had to tip over from a dipping volley by substitute Anthony Stokes. Then Miller scooped the ball over Toure only for a combination of the defender and the keeper to snaffle ball away.
Fabregas blazed wide and Adebayor steered wide in injury time as Arsenal looked to finally restore their two-goal cushion. Then, after McShane saw red, Walcott even slid a shot against the post.
However that would have been harsh on the visitors. Arsenal were worthy winners but Sunderland can draw their own comfort from this wonderful, wonderful game.
- Senderos Goal!
- Sagna 69
- Diaby 58
- van Persie 85 Goal! Goal!
- Eboue 69
- Silva 85
- Walcott 58
- McShane Red Card
- Wallace 78 Goal!
- Chopra 78 Yellow Card
- Yorke 93
- Jones Goal! Yellow Card
- Harte 93
- Etuhu 78
- Stokes 78