By Richard Clarke
Arsenal finished their season with a flourish at the Stadium of Light on Sunday.
Theo Walcott's first-half strike ensured Arsène Wenger's side ended up with 83 points. In years gone by that would have been enough to lift the Premier League title. Alas not this term. Arsenal knew before kick-off they would finish third while the top two places would be decided, without their involvement, elsewhere this afternoon.
Still, there have tangible signs of significant progression among Wenger's men during this campaign and performance of the Frenchman's youngsters today gave the impression there is plenty more to come.
Sunderland were always competitive but the moments of class came from Arsenal. Walcott was a fitting match-winner. His goal was nothing special but his recent performances certainly have been.
The England international was the brightest spark in an entertaining but ultimately meaningless game.
Next season, you sense Arsenal will feel the full benefit.
There was a familiar unfamiliarity about the visitors' line-up this afternoon. Wenger had sent out a much-changed side over the past few weeks in order to give the younger elements a little more top-flight experience. The likes of Lukas Fabianski, Denilson, Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner all retained their places this afternoon. A slight hamstring injury meant Kolo Toure was absent so Johann Djourou came in.
If it was a young side then the bench were babies - Armand Traore (18), Havard Nordviet (17), Mark Randall (18), Vito Mannone (20) and Nacer Barazite (17)
This was a rare pressure-free game for Arsenal. Chelsea and Manchester United were vying for the Premier League title, Wenger's men were safe but slightly disappointed in third.
Sunderland had achieved their season's aim - staying up - some weeks ago. Therefore they felt at liberty to attack the visitors in the opening stages.
Carlos Edwards' drive tested Fabianski with the first 20 seconds then, after Eboue had received lengthy treatment, the Arsenal keeper had to hurriedly collect a knockdown from Kenwyne Jones before Chris Leadbitter slid in.
Eboue nearly put in Adebayor but, in the 15th minute, Dwight Yorke fizzed an effort just over the bar. Overall the home side had started much the better.
However Arsenal gradually regained their composure with their best player over recent weeks, Walcott, to the fore once more.
In the 24th minute the youngster put Arsenal ahead somewhat against the run of play. The goal was simplicity itself. Gilberto clipped a ball forward between the Sunderland centre half and full back, Walcott raced through and slotted home.
Sunderland responded with even more energy. But the closest they came to a reply was when Danny Collins nodded over from a corner eight minutes before the break. Before that Senderos had sent a rasping drive over the bar from fully 40 yards.
Jones, the Sunderland spearhead, had hurt his hand a few minutes before the break blocking a shot from Gilberto. He failed to re-appear after the restart so Roy O'Donovan came on.
The substitute steered over an early header but once again the home pressure did not last.
In the 58th minute, Arsenal should have secured the three points when Leadbitter passed straight back to keeper Marton Fulop from Walcott's dangerous cross.
The referee gave an indirect free-kick eight yards and the home side pulled back everybody on the line. Adebayor took the kick and tapped the ball sideways to Gilberto who inexplicably sliced wide.
O'Donovan might have made Arsenal pay but, after Song slipped, the striker missed his kick at the far post.
Bendtner, Adebayor and Walcott combined wonderfully in the 68th minute but the England striker's cut back just failed to find a team-mate.
However Sunderland were still going for the equaliser and when Eboue gave the ball away O'Donovan dragged his shot wide from a dangerous position.
Wenger brought on Mark Randall in the closing stages and the young Englishman had the ball in the net with four minutes left only for the effort to be flagged offside. In the final minute he forced a super save from Fulop. Arsenal were ending the season strongly.
But in injury time Sunderland nearly salvaged a draw when O'Donovan met Leadbitter's low cross. However Fabianski held on to the ball as Arsenal held on to their victory.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Eboue 81
- Walcott Goal!
- Bendtner 81
- Traore 81
- Randall 81
- Collins Yellow Card
- Edwards 71
- Jones 45
- Yorke 76
- O'Donovan 45
- Miller 71
- Chopra 76