By Richard Clarke
Before kick-off against Sunderland, Arsenal needed a win and Nicklas Bendtner needed a goal.
Both got what they wanted this afternoon.
The Dane slotted home the all-important opener in the 27th minute following fine work from Emmanuel Eboue. It was only his second Premier League goal of an injury-hit campaign and provided the platform for his team to get over that midweek disappointment in Portugal.
This was a simple, straightforward victory. Sunderland had a couple of clear-cut chances but they should have been buried by an Arsenal side in full flow. However the tension remained until Cesc Fabregas scored a penalty in injury time.
Still no matter. With Manchester United losing at Everton, Wenger's team are now two points adrift of the second-placed side. They are still six shy of leaders Chelsea, who won comfortably at Wolves.
But Arsenal will not be shaken off in the title race just yet.
Wenger performed major surgery on the side beaten 2-1 at Porto on Wednesday. The dangers of Champions League lethargy had been clearly demonstrated at Goodison Park half-hour earlier, and the Frenchman clearly wanted to freshen his team.
OK the return of Manuel Almunia (finger) and Alex Song (knee) from injuries meant Lukas Fabianski and Denilson dropped to the bench. In addition Abou Diaby, who had collected a knee problem in Porto, was replaced by Aaron Ramsey. But Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna and Sol Campbell were rested in favour of Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Eboue and Mikael Silvestre.
If Wenger's squad was as thin as many suggested then we would find out this afternoon.
In truth, the first half was barely a test. Arsenal ended it leading by just one goal but their domination was almost total. They started at a bracing pace and, barring one major chance, never looked like loosening their grip.
The one-way traffic began in the fourth minute when Fabregas carved a pass into the path of Walcott. He was in a foot race with George McCartney. No contest. The Arsenal winger sprinted himself a yard clear and fired inches past the far post.
Shortly afterwards Samir Nasri raced down the left and his cross so nearly found the climbing Bendtner. Then, from a short corner, the Frenchman's angled drive hit McCartney and bounced narrowly wide.
Arsenal's pace, both individually and collectively, was troubling Sunderland. In the 15th minute Walcott chased down and then muscled off McCartney but with little help available could only fire straight at Craig Gordon. Bendtner flashed the rebound inches wide of the far post.
The Dane was now fully recovered from his groin injury and starting to provide the muscular presence the team required. However, on a personal front, Bendtner needed the confidence of a goal.
That should have come in the 17th minute when a flowing move down the right ended with Fabregas tapping a simple pass to the unmarked striker. He took a touch and let fly. However McCartney slid in to deflect the ball high on the bar.
Silvestre booted the ball clear after Fraser Campbell's half-blocked shot ran loose in the area. However Arsenal were utterly in control of this game and attacking at will.
Sunderland's defence lacked nothing in terms of commitment but their organisation this afternoon was awful. It was little wonder they had spiralled down the table in recent months.
You thought they could not last for long... and they didn't.
In the 27th minute, Eboue, who had enjoyed a sparkling start at right back, darted between McCartney and Darren Bent then divided the same pair with a low cross to the far post. The unmarked Bendtner tapped home with simplicity and then, quite rightly, he ran straight to Eboue to celebrate.
Arsenal looked to capitalise on Sunderland's troubles and continued to pour forward. It nearly cost them a goal in the 39th minute when Kieran Richardson's pass split the Arsenal defence and Jones went one-on-one with Almunia. The Trinidad international waited until he could see the whites of the keeper's eyes but failed to hold his nerve. He dragged his effort horribly wide.
Just before the whistle, Walcott, who was enjoying a fine first half, nearly found Bendtner but the sprawling Gordon intervened.
The only nagging concern from the first half was the slender lead Arsenal's comprehensive display had produced. After the restart, Wenger's side tried to remedy that with some urgency.
Fabregas drifted a free-kick through the area, past the diving Vermaelen and, unfortunately for Arsenal, just beyond the far post. Walcott then saw a low shot turned around the same upright by Gordon.
Just past the hour, Walcott was brought down just outside the area and Vermaelen's free-kick was punched clear by Gordon.
Arsenal's were still threatening a second but there remained a certain vulnerability to long balls over the top. In the 63rd minute Gordon's clearance was nodded on by Jones for Bent. Silvestre tailed the Englishman and Almunia stood up well to block his shot from point-blank range. Sunderland claimed Bent had been hauled back.
Still, it was a crucial save and, if it were needed, hammered home once again the needed for a second.
Shortly afterwards, the inventive Eboue reached the byline and cut the ball back for Ramsey. The Welshman's powerful drive was deflected for a corner. In the minutes that followed, Nasri saw a shot saved and another effort fly wide.
With 15 minutes to go Sunderland might have got on level terms. Jones won the ball just outside the area and his cross was miskicked by Bent eight yards out. The Englishman was flagged offside but he had not known that at the time.
In the dying seconds, Vermaelen was somehow adjudged to have fouled Jones and, from a dangerous position, substitute Bolo Zenden fired his free-kick against the wall.
Injury time was looking like being fast and intense before Campbell fouled Fabregas on the right of the area. The captain slotted home his 15th goal of the campaign from the spot.
At last, Arsenal could breathe easily.
- Eboue 89
- Nasri 72
- Fabregas (C) Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 78
- Bendtner Goal!
- Sagna 78
- Denilson 89
- Rosicky 72
- Turner Yellow Card
- Ferdinand Yellow Card
- McCartney 85
- Mensah Yellow Card
- Richardson 76 Yellow Card
- Cana (C) Yellow Card
- Jones 78
- Phil Bardsley 85
- Da Silva
- Zenden 76
- Mwaruwari 78