By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal missed an opportunity to put real pressure Manchester United when they could only grind out a frustrating goalless draw with Sunderland at Emirates Stadium.
This result actually inches Arsène Wenger’s side three points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. But the hope this afternoon had been to be breathing down the neck of the Old Trafford outfit before they travel to rivals Liverpool on Sunday.
Sunderland started the better but Arsenal dominated the final three-quarters of a tough, tight encounter. Substitute Marouane Chamakh came closest when he thundered a header against the bar in the 75th minute.
But visiting keeper Simon Mignolet saved well from Samir Nasri’s second-half free-kick. Meanwhile Andrey Arshavin might have been awarded a penalty and ‘scored’ after being controversially flagged offside.
Sunderland went close through Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson. But their game-plan this afternoon was to hassle and harry Arsenal out of their stride while keeping matters miserly at the back.
It was frustrating fare but it did the job. Arsenal lacked a certain cutting edge this afternoon but their endeavour cannot be questioned.
This is a bump on the road to the Premier League title but hardly a breakdown. Manchester United’s response will be critical and Wenger’s men can ill-afford to dwell on what might have been.
They must simply dust themselves down and carry on.
Wenger made eight changes from the thumping 5-0 win over Leyton Orient in midweek. The FA Cup tie had started the process of recovery after that horrible Carling Cup defeat the previous weekend. But any other treatment would have to be running repairs.
This was the first of three massive games in three competitions over the course of the next eight days and the manager had been crystal clear in belief that this one was the most important.
In terms of the team, only Abou Diaby, Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner remained from the Orient game. Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Jack Wilshere, Johan Djourou, Arshavin and Gael Clichy all returned. Laurent Koscielny was passed fit after a hamstring injury. Nasri was captain.
Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Alex Song (knee) were out today but remain hopeful for Barcelona. Robin van Persie (knee) and Theo Walcott (ankle) will be missing for a few weeks more.
However, perhaps the biggest news was the return of Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman had been on the bench in January but, since then, he had enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at Cardiff.
Arsenal came into this game trying to the close the gap at the top. Meanwhile Sunderland were trying to arrest a run of four straight defeats.
But it was the visitors who started the better.
In the second minute, Henderson’s low right-wing cross was nearly converted by Steed Malbranque at the near post. Shortly afterwards a Sunderland corner was half-cleared to Phil Bardsley, who rifled a shot wide.
After 10 minutes, Arsenal finally woke up. Clichy curled a low cross inches beyond the outstretched leg of Bendtner. Nasri collected the rebound and fired into the chest of Mignolet.
But Sunderland were still playing with a confidence that belied their recent results. Stephane Sessegnon’s drive forced a flying save from Szczesny and then Malbranque was denied by Djourou at the near post.
However, as the game wore on, Arsenal gradually gained control. Just before the half-hour, Arshavin raced onto a lofted through-ball from Wilshere but a combination of Titus Bramble and Mignolet cleared up the danger.
Ten minutes from half-time, Nasri weaved his way to the byline but, when he tried to cut back the ball, Bardlsey blocked at the near post. When the corner came over, Djourou’s flick fell nicely for Bendtner but his point-blank bicycle kick was straight at Mignolet.
Arsenal were starting to come on strong now. In the 40th minute, Wilshere chipped Bendtner into space on the right. The Dane fired a dipping volley inches over the bar from an acute angle.
It had been a frustrating half but at least the home side had ended it in the ascendancy.
After the restart, they tried to impose themselves in the same way but Sunderland had their sleeves rolled up this afternoon.
The first 15 minutes was a scrappy affair with few chances but decent pressure from both sides.
Unsurprisingly, Wenger decided to make changes. Chamakh replaced Denilson and went up front. Bendtner dropped wide and Nasri came into central midfield.
The Moroccan was immediately involved. He escaped down the right and cut the ball back from Arshavin, who shot was beaten away by Mignolet.
Time was ticking on and Arsenal needed a goal. In the 72nd minute, Sessegnon’s foul on Koscielny gave them an opportunity just outside the area. Nasri’s free-kick was beaten away by the Sunderland stopper.
Three minutes later, they would come even closer. Wilshere drifted a ball to the far post and Chamakh crashed a header against the bar.
Back-to-back opportunities injected a momentum into Arsenal’s game. The crowd now sensed this was the moment. Just before Tomas Rosicky replaced Diaby, Sagna fired over at the far post.
As we entered the final 10 minutes, Arsenal had a massive chance. Arshavin raced through in the left-hand channel with Bramble in pursuit. The Englishman was tangling with the Russian all the way and, as he stumbled, pushed the Arsenal striker who shanked his shot wide.
It could have been a goal, it could have been a penalty. In the end it was neither.
Sunderland’s attacking had been limited in the second half but they would fashion two quick efforts. Substitute Wellbeck swiveled and sent a sharp shot towards the far post. Szczesny pushed it wide. From the corner, the keeper used his chest to block a shot from Henderson.
When the final whistle went, Arsenal were deflated, Sunderland delighted.
That tells the story of the game.
This was a deeply disappointing draw but this Premier League story will have a few more plot-twists before May.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
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