By Chris Harris
Arsenal were seconds from topping the Premier League table on Saturday night before they were wrenched from the summit by a stoppage-time equaliser.
The visitors led through a freakish goal from Cesc Fabregas, who stuck his boot out in the 12th minute and was as surprised as everyone else when Anton Ferdinand’s clearance hit it and ballooned over the keeper and into the net.
Alex Song received his marching orders 11 minutes after the break for two bookable offences and Tomas Rosicky squandered a great chance to seal the points when he skied a penalty with 17 minutes left.
Arsenal looked like resisting Sunderland’s frenzied efforts to score an equaliser but Gael Clichy’s attempted clearance in the fourth minute of stoppage time hit Laurent Koscielny and bounced kindly for Darren Bent, who smashed in gleefully.
Sunderland will feel they deserved a draw but the clearer chances throughout fell to Arsenal - even when they were down to 10 men. This might look like a decent point before long but, at the final whistle, it felt like a defeat.
It was a case of ‘as you were’ when Arsene Wenger picked his team for this match. He stuck with the same XI – and the same subs – who lined up against Braga on Wednesday night. Abou Diaby, Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Aaron Ramsey are all still injured.
The Stadium of Light has been an unhappy hunting ground in recent years for Arsenal – they needed a last-gasp Fabregas header to snatch a point in 2009 and lost to Darren Bent’s scrambled strike last time out.
But having beaten Bolton and Blackburn already – a double Arsene Wenger admitted would have been improbable two years ago – this was another chance for Arsenal to show they have changed.
Sunderland have been consistently inconsistent so far but they have beaten Manchester City at home and they set about disrupting Arsenal’s rhythm from the start, something Braga had patently failed to do in midweek.
The early sparring produced no more than a couple of half-chances: Song’s burst and Marouane Chamakh’s lay-off set up Andrey Arshavin for a first-time curler but the Russian was leaning back as he struck the ball and his effort flew over.
At the other end Jordan Henderson volleyed over from edge of box but the game didn’t really spark into life until a freakish Fabregas strike broke the deadlock in the 12th minute.
There seemed no imminent danger to Sunderland as Ferdinand went to launch a long diagonal but his clearance struck Fabregas on the leg as the Arsenal captain closed down and the ball looped up and over the helpless Simon Mignolet and into the net.
You won’t see a more bizarre goal all season.
Arsenal had clearly enjoyed a huge slice of luck but there was a twist in the tail. Fabregas pulled a hamstring not long after and was replaced before the half-hour by Rosicky.
By then, Arsenal were defending for their lives.
Sunderland had responded impressively to falling behind and squandered a string of half-chances to get back on terms before the break.
Steed Malbranque sliced a shot over from the edge of the box, Nedum Onuoha powered a free header off target while Cristian Riveros arrived too quickly to meet a devilish cross from Ahmed Elmohamady and could only nod the ball into the ground.
Arsenal wobbled but they did not fall with Laurent Koscielny outstanding at the back, winning header after header and distributing the ball with admirable calm.
Song’s downward header from Arshavin’s deep cross alleviated the pressure but Arsenal were perhaps fortuitous to take their narrow lead into half-time.
That said, they should have been out of sight just after the restart.
Nasri raced to the byline within seconds of the whistle and crossed for Arshavin to scoop a sharp chance over the bar from no more than five yards.
Within two minutes a dancing run from Rosicky and Song’s deft touch set up another opening for Arshavin 12 yards out but the Russian sliced his left-foot shot wide.
The game could have been sewn up there and then. Instead, Arsenal’s task was made considerably harder by a red card awarded to Song after 56 minutes. His first booking was deserved; his second seemed harsh.
Sunderland sensed their opportunity and Bent span to fire a shot wide within a minute of the sending off.
But Arsenal regrouped. And after drawing Sunderland’s sting, they pressed forward in search of the goal that would settle the issue.
Nasri clipped a free-kick over the bar on the hour-mark and, with 17 minutes left, the same man was brought down inside the box. Up stepped Rosicky, only to thump his penalty against the top of the bar.
The away fans held their heads in their hands and no wonder – that miss set up a grandstand finish and ultimately cost their team victory.
Manuel Almunia was alert to deny Asamoah Gyan after Denilson’s slip and the keeper made a flying save to deny the Ghana international late on.
But Sunderland eventually found a way through - with practically the last kick of the match.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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