By Chris Harris
Cesc Fabregas headed home in stoppage time to rescue Arsenal from defeat at the Stadium of Light.
Grant Leadbitter's spectacular strike just five minutes from time seemed to have given Sunderland victory but the Spanish midfielder met Robin van Persie's corner with seconds remaining to secure the visitors a point they certainly deserved.
Arsenal could have had more if Van Persie's effort had not been wrongly ruled out in the second half. Theo Walcott's hooked cross was rifled in by the Dutchman but the linesman indicated that the ball had gone out of play before Walcott had retrieved it. Replays suggested the goal should have stood.
Leadbitter's stunning 25-yard strike appeared to have rubbed salt in Arsenal's wounds Arsène Wenger will seek some solace in Fabregas' late intervention. Nonetheless, after a defeat and a draw in two Premier League games, his players have much to do when they return from international duty in a fortnight.
Wenger opted for one change from the side which beat Porto in midweek. Alex Song was available again after a hip injury and was brought straight back in to add ballast to Arsenal's midfield. It was Song's 50th appearance in English football, although some of those games came on loan at Charlton. Samir Nasri dropped to the bench as Wenger plumped for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Fabregas given greater licence to get forward.
Nasri's omission may have been an acknowledgement from Wenger that he expected a stern physical test from Sunderland. Indeed, all the ingredients were there if you enjoy the stereotype of a tough day in the north for Arsenal - a biting, swirling wind, persistent drizzle and determined opponents. You sensed the visitors would need steel as well as style at the Stadium of Light.
In the event, neither side mastered the difficult conditions in a scrappy first half. While Arsenal struggled to exert their usual authority on proceedings, Sunderland too often left Djibril Cisse isolated up front. As a result clear-cut chances were at a premium.
In fact, the first opening came about while William Gallas was replacing his boots on the sidelines. Song took time to drop back into central defence and Sunderland took advantage as Dean Whitehead raced onto a through-ball. Kolo Toure's sliding tackle had to be perfectly timed - and it was.
After 11 minutes Arsenal had their first opening. A short corner found Fabregas on the edge of the Sunderland box but his cross held up in the swirling wind en route to Adebayor and the Togo striker couldn't time his leap well enough, heading well over the bar.
Fabregas, Adebayor and Denilson tried pot-shots - not a bad idea in these conditions - but failed to test Craig Gordon.
Indeed, the better chances were being carved out at the other end. On the quarter-hour Walcott was dispossessed by Kieran Richardson, who slid the ball to Cisse. Manuel Almunia raced out to deny the Frenchman from a narrow angle. Two minutes later Cisse collected the ball in the right channel and, having assessed his options, lashed in a shot which Almunia tipped over the bar. Arsenal were guilty of failing to close down Cisse - a mistake which cost them dear against Hull's Geovanni last weekend.
As the half drew to a close, the visitors enjoyed a decent spell of pressure as Fabregas dropped deeper and, as a result, saw more of the ball. Nine minutes before the break Walcott found a couple of yards of space for the first time and whipped in a low cross. Van Persie lurked at the far post but Gordon dived to claim the ball ahead of him.
Nonetheless, it was a sign that Arsenal were finding their groove and they started the second half with plenty of purpose.
After a long spell of possession Fabregas found Walcott on the right and the teenager drove a low ball across the six-yard box but no Arsenal player gambled and the danger passed.
Then came the game's moment of controversy. Walcott battled his way to the right-hand byline and, as the ball bounced away from him, the 19-year-old hooked his boot around it and cut it back for Van Persie to rifle past Gordon. Arsenal's celebrations were cut short by a linesman's flag who ruled that the ball had gone out of play. To compound Arsenal's woes, TV replays contradicted the official.
Sunderland had their moments - Richardson tested Almunia from distance, Reid curled a free-kick straight at the Arsenal keeper and Cisse shot over after Denilson had lost possession - but the visitors were enjoying most of the ball and most of the territory. It seemed just a matter of finding a way through the Black Cats' back four.
Nicklas Bendtner replaced Walcott and made inroads almost immediately, finding Adebayor after a jinking run. Once again, the Togolese was crowded out. Then Wenger brought off Denilson and brought on Nasri; the Frenchman had a sight of goal with 15 minutes left but could only poke his effort at Gordon.
With nine minutes left Arsenal came even closer. Excellent build-up play involving Bendtner left Van Persie through on goal just eight yards out. The Dutchman's right-foot shot was on target but Gordon stood tall to block. Worst was to follow as Leadbitter emerged from the bench to fire home an unstoppable effort from 25 yards.
Arsenal threw everything forward in a desperate attempt to rescue a point and they were rewarded when Fabregas leapt to head home Van Persie's corner. The Gunners could have won and they came so close to losing, but a draw was probably a fair result.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Toure Yellow Card
- Fabregas Goal!
- Walcott 65
- Denilson 74
- Song 86
- van Persie
- Vela 86
- Bendtner 65
- Nasri 74
- Malbranque 86
- Yorke 83
- Cisse 86
- Leadbitter 83 Goal!
- Murphy 86
- Chopra 86