By Richard Clarke
Arsenal registered their third successive goalless draw in the Premier League this afternoon and the run could cost them dearly at the end of the season
Arsène Wenger’s side knew a win against Sunderland this afternoon would bring them closer to Champions League qualification because fourth-place Chelsea and Aston Villa, in third, were battling it out at lunchtime.
However the maths only worked out if Arsenal won themselves and, despite a bright first half inspired by new signing Andrey Arshavin, they could not break through a stubborn Sunderland defence.
Robin van Persie clipped a shot wide in the early stages and Kolo Toure had a header cleared off the line in first half injury time. However, as the eye-catching Arshavin faded, so did Arsenal’s chances.
Villa’s defeat means they are now just six points ahead of Wenger side and certainly still catchable. But this was a massive chance for Arsenal and they did not grasp it.
Arsenal are now 13 games unbeaten but, increasingly, draws are not enough.
After the lunchtime game at Villa Park had finished, there was only one topic of debate pre-match and it concerned the nature of Arshavin’s contribution this afternoon. In the end the Russian did make the starting line-up and took up a role on the right. As a result Carlos Vela dropped out.
Otherwise the changes from Monday’s night’s win over Cardiff were entirely expected – Manuel Almunia for Lukasz Fabianski, Gael Clichy for Kieran Gibbs and Robin van Persie for Eduardo.
The Croatian’s comeback had been football’s feelgood story this week. Unfortunately Eduardo’s hamstring did not feel quite so good afterwards, he will be missing for two weeks now.
Still, that game was a wonderful fillip for a side in need of a boost.
And Arshavin nearly started this game the same way. The midfield opened up for him after precisely four minutes and 40 seconds into his Emirates Stadium career. He dragged his shot inches wide.
In all honesty that shot had been a little tentative. But his angled drive towards the top corner on the quarter-hour was anything but. It took all the strength and skill of keeper Marton Fulop to cope with its ferocity.
In between those efforts, Denilson’s clever ball had sent Van Persie clear. The Dutchman clipped the ball over the Sunderland stopper but it drifted wide.
Wenger had been somewhat critical of Sunderland’s defensive tactics in the game at the Stadium of Light. However since then Ricky Sbragia had replaced Roy Keane and, in fairness, the visitors were not just sitting back this afternoon. As a result, they created a flurry of chances in the middle portion of the first half.
Anton Ferdinand stung Almunia’s hands from distance then the keeper had to slide out and deny Dean Whitehead. After that the same player saw a drive batted away and Andy Reid blazed over the bar from distance.
However Arshavin was still catching the eye. After 30 minutes, he wrapped his foot around a ball on the right-hand touchline and sent a pin-point cross to Nicklas Bendtner, whose head was scrambled around the post by Fulop.
By now, Arshavin and Nasri had swapped flanks. Seven minutes before break the Frenchman sent Bendtner scampering down the right. His cross was deflected dangerously towards Fulop at the near post but the keeper snaffled to ball at the second attempt.
Arsenal seemed to fancy their chances of a breakthrough as the interval approached. First Sagna saw a shot deflected over then, from Van Persie’s corner, Toure’s powerful header was booted off the line by Reid at the far post.
However the visitors nearly provided a suckerpunch. In injury time they broke quickly and only the backtracking Sagna prevented Kenwyne Jones giving the visitors the advantage.
Although Toure nearly squeezed a shot under Fulop at the death it had been a frustrating half. That Villa defeat made this game gigantic for Arsenal – three points, via whatever means, was a must this afternoon.
For the first 15 minutes of the second period they had the ball but did little with it. Arshavin was a now a fading force and it was no surprise to see him replaced by Vela in the 64th minute.
The Mexican has been used to add urgency in tight matches and that was clearly his job this afternoon. His introduction pushed Nasri to the right and gave the rest of the side a dig in the ribs. They needed it.
Although Van Persie’s free-kick was punched away by Fulop midway through the half Arsenal were still in charge but not in front.
The Dutchman had half a shout for a penalty when he was hauled down with 18 minutes left. Straight after that Clichy chased a lost cause of a ball and managed to claw back a cross from the byline. It found Sagna whose shot deflected wide for a corner.
Vela had made a difference but he would spurn two decent chances and, as a result, desperation started to set in.
First he pulled an effort past one post after a hanging cross had unexpectedly fallen to him. With 10 minutes left he sliced an effort horribly wide from a similar position.
As the seconds ticked by, Sunderland started to go forward in search an unlikely win.
But in fact Arsenal would fashion two chances themselves in injury time. First Gallas slashed a shot wide then, in a last act of the game, Van Persie raced onto a flick from substitute Emmanuel Eboue but could only drive straight at Fulop.
Referee: Alan Wiley
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