By Richard Clarke
Arsenal slipped to their third defeat of the season when they went down 1-0 at Sunderland on Saturday.
The all-important goal arrived 19 minutes from time when Darren Bent lashed home from close range after the visitors had failed to clear a corner.
There had been little between the two teams before that. Arsenal had the better of the chances in the first half. Tomas Rosicky was denied in the first five minutes and Eduardo drifted a shot just wide on the half-hour. However Sunderland were the better side directly after the restart. The goal made for a frantic finale, something entirely out of keeping with the first hour.
Cesc Fabregas had equalised in the 93rd minute in this fixture last season. The closest Arsenal came this time was when Andrey Arshavin nudged Alex Song’s cross into the sidenetting from close-range four minutes from time. However Arsenal did have claims for a penalty in injury time when Carlos Vela was clipped in the area.
This was always going to be a tough game – Sunderland have already beaten Liverpool and drawn at Old Trafford this season - but it does not make the result less disappointing.
This was Arsenal’s first shut-out of the season and their first Premier League defeat to Sunderland since August 19, 2000.
If it were possible, next Sunday’s clash with Chelsea is now even more important. Arsenal are now eight points behind the Stamford Bridge side.
Wenger’s team at the Stadium of Light was interesting. There were few surprises up front. With Robin van Persie (ankle) having joined Nicklas Bendtner (groin) on the bench, Eduardo was the obvious choice as the pivotal striker in the front three. Rosicky and Samir Nasri flanked him so Arshavin dropped to the bench.
Aaron Ramsey retained his place in central so the key decision was at left back. Again two key candidates were out – Gael Clichy (back) and Kieran Gibbs (foot) – so Wenger had a choice of Mikael Silvestre or Armand Traore.
He chose the youngster. It was only his second Premier League start for the former Monaco trainee, though he had gained valuable experience during a loan spell at Portsmouth last season.
The city of Sunderland was deluged by rain in the build-up to kick-off. It just added to the banana-skin feel about this fixture – away from home against a solid side, injury hit and just after an international break. No wonder Wenger had called for focus pre-match
The manager need not have worried early on, his side started at a canter. It took just five minutes for them to fashion a clear-cut chance.
Bacary Sagna sent a deep, hanging cross beyond the far post, Fabregas hooked it back into the path of Rosicky, who wrapped his right-foot around the ball from close range. Unfortunately, for Arsenal, keeper Marton Fulop had got his angles right and the ball bounced away off his leg.
Eight minutes later, Traore cut inside his marker and his blocked shot fell to Fabregas who thumped an effort over the bar from long-range.
Sunderland were under pressure but they responded and, in the following five minutes, they twice escaped down the left and each time Steed Malbranque fired over when he should have done better.
That lifted the home fans briefly but their side soon fell back into a lethargic groove.
In the 32nd minute, Song drove forward and fed Eduardo on the edge of the area. He slipped inside his sliding marker but the ball got stuck under his feet and, although he lifted the ball over Fulop, his shot drifted wide.
Arsenal were starting to exert themselves again. Traore, who was having an eye-catching game, reached the byline and Ramsey bobbled a shot into the hands of Fulop.
Just before half-time, Fabregas fired over from distance. The Spanish skipper held his head in his hands at his own wastefulness.
It had been that kind of half. All the fleeting moments of quality had come from Arsenal but the mediocre majority had prevailed.
Both sides had to improve.
Sunderland were the better team immediately after the break. Territorially, the home side were in charge but the closest they came was when Andy Reid fired a free-kick wide and then lifted an effort over the bar.
Seconds after the second chance, Wenger brought on Arshavin for Ramsey. The change helped Arsenal recover their previous poise, something they needed because the game was becoming increasingly frenetic.
It has been stalemate until now but finally you sensed a goal was coming. It arrived in the 71st minute. Reid fired over a corner. It was overhit and nodded on by Bent towards the far post where it hit substitute Frazier Campbell and bounced back into the six-yard box. The former Spurs striker lashed home the ball from close range.
Wenger had been preparing to bring on Walcott. In the wake of the goal, he added Vela too.
A game that had been a slow-burn all afternoon was suddenly alight.
Thomas Vermaelen hacked an effort from a Fabregas cross as Arsenal began their pursuit of the game. By the 86th minute, when Arshavin nudged Song’s cross just wide, that had become a desperate chase.
Either side of that effort, Vela and Walcott drifted penetrative balls across the face of goal. All they needed was a touch. But it was not that kind of day for Arsenal.
Just to prove that, after Kieran Richardson nearly added a second at one end, Vela appeared to be clipped in the area. Referee Alan Wiley waved play on.
Arsenal deserved a draw but they had lost.
- Traore Yellow Card
- Ramsey 59
- Fabregas (C)
- Rosicky 71
- Eduardo 71
- Vela 71
- Arshavin 59
- Walcott 71
- Bardsley Yellow Card
- Mensah 81
- Reid 77
- Malbranque 65
- Cana (C)
- Richardson Yellow Card
- Bent Goal!
- Zenden 77
- Campbell 65
- Ferdinand 81