By Richard Clarke
If Tottenham are going to finish fourth in the Premiership then Arsenal are going to make them work for it.
Before this afternoon's game at Sunderland began, Martin Jol's side had a seven-point advantage over Arsène Wenger's men but they had played two matches more.
The first of those games in hand was, quite frankly, a stroll for the visitors to the Stadium of Light thanks to an own goal by Danny Collins plus further scores from Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry. All of the strikes came in the first half.
Ashley Cole, who has played just an hour of first-team football since October, came on midway through the second half. Otherwise this was very much a regulation victory on the road.
Arsenal must achieve something similar at Manchester City on Thursday to retain realistic hopes of qualifying for the Champions League via their Premiership position.
Wenger made five changes from the side that had reached the Champions League Final with a 0-0 draw Villarreal last week. Mathieu Flamini (hamstring), Alex Hleb (knee), Gilberto (ankle) and Jose Antonio Reyes (wisdom teeth) were all out. Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song, Robert Pires, Abou Diaby and Gael Clichy came in.
There was an end-of-season feeling about this game straight from the start. Sunderland had been long since relegated and the main buzz at the Stadium of Light before kick-off surrounded a possible takeover by Niall Quinn, who had played for both teams during an illustrious career.
The start of the game was fittingly tame. In the eighth minutes, Henry's near post cross was touched behind by Robert Pires.
Kevin Kyle made a nuisance of himself at the other end. Sunderland threw optimistic crosses into the area in the hope of finding his head. The Scotland striker actually seemed more dangerous with his feet. He cracked a shots wide in the 19th and 35th minutes.
Otherwise the half belonged to Arsenal and, in truth, they did not have to do much to take it. In the 27th minute, Henry curled over a free-kick from the left and Danny Collins, craning his neck over Abou Diaby, nodded the ball past his own keeper at the near post. Five minutes before the break the lead was doubled.
Henry controlled a lofted pass from Pires and threaded the ball through an alley of Sunderland players. Fabregas timed his run to perfection and slipped his shot over Kelvin Davis from 10 yards out.
Three minutes later, Henry caught the Sunderland keeper napping by curling a free-kick over the wall and into the net at the near post. The Arsenal striker shrugged almost apologetically after the ball hit the net. Like most of the first half, it had been just so easy.
Sunderland were most threatening at the start of the second half. In the 53rd minute, Sol Campbell's stumble on the left flank under pressure from Anthony le Tallac and the Frenchman crossed perfectly for Kyle. The burly striker rose well and met the ball with a firm header. Lehmann moved swiftly to his left to tip the ball aside.
But, in general, Arsenal were still in cruise control. As a result Wenger withdrew Henry, Pires and Adebayor midway through the half for Robin van Persie, Dennis Bergkamp and, for the first time since January, Cole.
Just before the last of those substitutions, Henry let fly from the corner of the area and Davis palmed the ball onto the inside of his own post. He was the most relieved man in the stadium when the ball bounced back into his hands.
Aside from a clattering tackle by Dan Smith on Diaby which forced the Frenchman to leave the pitch on a stretcher, the game petered out into a slight odd conclusion. The heavens opened and their side were being outplayed but the Sunderland fans were happy to sing in the rain.
Arsenal fans will be similarly tuneful if, somehow, they can squeeze into fourth place.
- Pires 64
- Fabregas Goal!
- Adebayor 64
- Henry 71 Goal!
- Cole 64
- Bergkamp 71
- Persie 64
- McCartney Yellow Card
- Miller 81
- Stead 32
- Murphy 62
- Smith 62 Yellow Card
- Leadbitter 81
- Tallec 32