By Richard Clarke at the Stadium of Light
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Thierry Henry secured a vital victory at Sunderland on Saturday with virtually his last kick for Arsenal in England.
The talismanic Frenchman is due to end his second spell with the Club after their European tie at Milan on Wednesday, so this afternoon was the record goalscorer’s farewell to the Premier League.
As ever, he supplied a fairytale for the occasion by guiding home Andrey Arshavin’s exquisite cross in the dying seconds.
The strike was the 229th of Henry’s career and capped a stunning comeback for Arsenal, who had dominated the game but trailed to James McClean’s opportunist strike with 20 minutes left after an unchallenged Per Mertesacker had gone down with an instant injury.
Substitute Aaron Ramsey equalised five minutes later with a trickling shot that bounced off both posts before going in. Arsenal huffed and puffed in pursuit of the winner but only Henry could blow Sunderland’s house down.
This was a highly unremarkable game in which utterly remarkable things happened. Wenger, however, will only care about the points.
With Chelsea and Liverpool both losing, this was a huge victory for Arsenal, who are now fourth above the Stamford Bridge outfit on goals scored.
Henry was the hero once again. And, for many, he will remain that way.
This was a fitting farewell to the English game.
The early kick-off saw Manchester United beat Liverpool in a fractious affair at Old Trafford. The quartet of teams currently ensnared in the race for fourth place all had tricky away trips. Kenny Dalglish’s side probably had the toughest task and had already fallen short.
Arsenal’s assignment was only a little less daunting as they faced the Premier League’s in-form side. Martin O’Neill’s men had garnered 22 points out of 30 since his appointment in December.
Understandably, Wenger made few changes from the side that humbled Blackburn 7-1 last Saturday. In fact his only switch was to give Bacary Sagna his second start at right back since October 2. Francis Coquelin dropped to the bench.
Meanwhile, for his side’s fifth game in 13 days, O’Neill chose the same XI that had played 120 minutes on Wednesday in an FA Cup replay against Middlesbrough. Arsenal’s start suggested they were very aware of the potential fatigue factor.
Right from the off, the visitors set a lively pace that penned back their hosts.
However, chances were always rare. Thomas Vermaelen’s header from Robin van Persie’s corner was blocked by keeper Simon Mignolet. At the other end, Laurent Koscielny was dispossessed by Stephane Sessegnon and Fraizer Campbell’s shot was deflected wide.
That was about it for the open 20 minutes. Truth be told, this was a stodgy game on a stodgy pitch.
There was brief moment of class when Walcott, Arsenal’s brightest attacking option in the first half, popped on the right and dragged his shot across a few feet past the far post.
However the England international then hoisted a horribly high volley over the bar from Song’s crossfield chip.
As the half wore on, Sunderland were still territorially disadvantaged but they were able to create more on the break.
However, in keeping with a moribund first 45 minutes, the main talking point was an unforced error. Six minutes from the whistle, Jack Colback sent over an aimless cross from the left and Mertesacker slipped in the area as he attempted to clear. The ball hit the German’s hand - it was only the deliberation that was in question.
Much to the chagrin of the home crowd, referee Neil Swarbrick waved play on.
Arsenal ended the first half on top and Rosicky, who had an influential 45 minutes, saw a shot blocked.
The pattern stayed the same after the interval. The visitors had the energy and the urgency but Sunderland soaked up the pressure.
Mignolet fumbled Van Persie’s early shot but John O’Shea thumped a loose ball just over the bar in reply when Seb Larsson’s free-kick was blocked.
It was perhaps Sunderland’s clearest chance but it only spurred on Arsenal. For the next five minutes they laid siege to the home goal. However, they could not force Mingolet in action.
Wojciech Szczesny had to make his first serious save in the 57th minute after Larsson’s corner was cleared to Craig Gardner. He let fly and Szczesny flew to his left to tip the ball around the post.
That effort was, in fact, offside. However, it would have counted a few minutes later when the Gardner tried his luck again from a similar distance. Szczesny saved once and then mopped up the rebound.
Wenger then brought on Henry to try and force a goal. And, indeed, the opener was close. But it would go Sunderland’s way in the most unfortunate fashion.
In the 70th minute, Sagna tapped the ball back to Mertesacker on the right, who turned to usher the ball back to his keeper. However, the German went down in distress with no-one in close attendance. McClean collected the loose ball, advanced on goal and bent his shot into far corner of the net.
It was a stunning way to lose a goal. But Arsenal also lost a player. Mertesacker was stretchered off and Ramsey came on.
Within five minutes, the Welshman had struck the equaliser. Arteta’s shot was deflected to his feet just outside the area. Ramsey’s shot was not clean but it bobbled past Mingolet, bounced off his right-hand post, trickled across the line, hit the other post and, eventually, meandered over the line.
It was a massive goal for Arsenal and set up a frantic final. As we had seen all game, the urgency came from the visitors. It seemed that Sunderland were happy with a point.
A minute from normal time, substitute Arshavin crossed from the left and Van Persie rose unmarked six yards out. However, he could only direct his header straight at Mignolet.
Then, at the death, Henry did his thing.
It was the cue for pandemonium amongst the Arsenal fans who deserved this moment for travelling all this way in such frosty conditions.
Ta Ta Thierry. Thanks for everything.
And can we have a grand ‘arrivederci’ in Milan on Wedneday too please?
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
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