By Richard Clarke
Robin van Persie reaffirmed his commitment to Arsenal then fired his side to a crucial 2-1 win over Sunderland on Sunday.
Before kick-off this afternoon, the captain used his programme notes to assure the Emirates Stadium faithful that his full focus was on hauling Arsène Wenger’s team back up the table.
Within half a minute of the opening whistle he set about doing just that by putting Arsenal in front. The home side, and Van Persie, looked like grabbing more in the wake of the goal but an excellent free-kick from Seb Larsson on the half-hour undermined their early confidence.
Arsenal went on the offensive after the interval but it looked like being another one of ‘those’ afternoons before Van Persie fired home a late free-kick that matched Larsson’s for quality.
This was not the most convincing victory but, nonetheless, a victory it was.
In the end, it will be those – and only those – that bring Arsenal back into contention at the top of the table.
And three points this afternoon lifts them back into the upper half of that list.
Wenger made three changes from the side beaten at Tottenham a fortnight earlier. Bacary Sagna had suffered a fractured fibula in that game so Carl Jenkinson made only his fourth first-team start at right back.
Aaron Ramsey had suffered a muscular injury playing for Wales in midweek so Tomas Rosicky returned to central midfield. Laurent Koscielny was fit again so Alex Song moved back into his familiar role as the defensive shield. Francis Coquelin had belied his years to fill that role with aplomb at White Hart Lane. This afternoon he dropped out of the squad.
Sunderland were without Nicklas Bendtner due to the terms of his loan spell from Arsenal. Surprisingly Steve Bruce employed midfielder Stephane Sessegnon as his lone front man.
As the home crowd settled down into their seats at Emirates Stadium they may have read the matchday programme – and Van Persie’s notes in particular - with interest.
In the first 15 minutes the Dutchman played like he was making a point.
Inside 30 seconds he put Arsenal ahead by cleverly allowing a pass from Gervinho to run across his body on the edge of the area before firing low past Simon Mignolet.
It was Van Persie’s sixth of the season and he celebrated with relief as much as joy. Then he set about adding to the total.
In the 12th minute he came closest. The captain shielded Arteta’s pass away from his marker down the right-hand channel then, with Mingolet off his line, tried to execute a Bergkamp-style chip over the keeper and into the net. However, his effort hit the inside the of the far post and bounced across the goal-line before Sunderland managed to snaffle away the danger.
A couple of minutes later he thundered a shot just wide from the edge of the area.
On another day Van Persie would have had a hat-trick inside 15 minutes – and a high quality one at that.
In the 21st minute Gervinho muscled in on the skipper’s one-man show by cutting inside from the left and firing over from range.
Up to this point it was all Arsenal. Sunderland were being overrun and in acute danger of conceding more.
However, by the half-hour they would be level. Just before the equaliser, Sessegnon beat the Arsenal offside trap - and then the charging Szczesny - but the hosts managed to get enough bodies back to defend the open goal.
A couple of minutes later Arsenal failed to clear their lines and the jumping Mikel Arteta handled a high, hanging clearance.
Larsson had perfected his free-kick technique as a Reserve-team player with the home side. He displayed just how much he had learnt by curling a pin-point effort past Szczesny from 25 yards.
It was less than Sunderland deserved but the visitors quickly sought to capitalise. Sessegnon found space on the left of the area and he was given enough space to reach Lee Cattermole four yards out. The midfielder’s header was from point-blank range but Szczesny threw himself to his left to make the save. A brilliant and crucial stop.
Suddenly Arsenal looked nervous. They tried to rally but Sunderland carved out another clear chance in injury time when Larsson nodded down for the unmarked Jack Colback to whip a volley inches over the bar.
Wenger sent his side out with a different mentality after the break. In the opening stages, Song had a goal-bound shot charged down then Walcott forced a fine save from Mignolet at the near post.
Although Arsenal lost Kieran Gibbs in the 53rd minute, fortunately they had a direct replacement in Andre Santos.
The change did not upset the home side’s charge for a second goal. As a result, Sunderland picked up a flurry of yellow cards trying to stop Arsenal breaking through.
In the 65th minute, Van Persie’s low effort was kicked away by Mignolet at the near post. Despite dominating territorially, it was the closest Arsenal had come in the second half.
Not surprisingly, Wenger made an attacking change shortly afterwards – Andrey Arshavin for Gervinho. The Russian was quickly in the game.
In the 73rd minute, he weaved through four Sunderland defenders before poking a shot just wide.
After that, Wenger threw on Yossi Benayoun for Rosicky. The pattern of the game was now set – Arsenal attacking, camped in the visitors’ half; Sunderland defending, working hard to snuff out their hosts’ attacks.
It seemed like one of those days when individual brilliance or good fortune would decide the three points.
In the end, it was the former.
Eight minutes from full time, Wes Brown upended Van Persie just outside the area to the right of goal. The Dutchman stepped up to curl home a fine free-kick. Yet again, relief was the only response.
Sunderland substitute Ji Dong-Won had the ball in the net seconds later but was rightly flagged offside. However Arshavin, who was having a fine cameo, stung the hands of Mignolet in reply.
The visitors had now performed an about-face. They were pouring forward and Arsenal were defending for their lives.
But, by hook or by crook, the home side got the win they so needed.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Gibbs 51
- Song Yellow Card
- Rosicky 77
- Gervinho 68
- van Persie Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Andre Santos 51
- Benayoun 77
- Arshavin 68
- Brown Yellow Card
- Cattermole 87
- Larsson 67 Goal! Yellow Card
- Vaughan Yellow Card
- Sessegnon 78
- Gardner 87
- Ji Dong-Won 67
- Wickham 78