By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal created a host of chances but were held to a goalless draw by Sunderland on a frustrating evening at Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners dominated almost from the first whistle, testing Sunderland goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon through Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla in quick succession.
With the visitors showing little attacking ambition, Arsene Wenger’s side were free to dictate play as they pressed and probed in search of an opening.
Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud went close before the break, but the game really sprang to life after the restart.
Dick Advocaat’s side had not tested David Ospina once in the first 45 minutes, but the Colombia international suddenly had to make two smarts stops from Steven Fletcher and Patrick van Aanholt.
The Gunners responded by throwing men forward, with Giroud and Kieran Gibbs next to try their luck.
Fletcher then missed two golden chances for Sunderland, before substitute Theo Walcott - on his 300th appearance for the club - saw a shot cleared off the line.
Despite intense late pressure, Arsenal could not find the goal their performance merited. Third place may ultimately be as good as theirs, but it will go to the final day to decide that once and for all.
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsenal’s task ahead of the match was straightforward: win and automatic entry to next season’s Champions League was their prize. In fact, a draw would pretty much do it too, considering their superior goal difference to fourth-placed Manchester United.
To that end, Sunderland may have seemed inviting opponents. The Black Cats had not beaten their hosts for 10 games and had taken the fewest shots on goal in the Premier League this season. However, Advocaat’s appointment as manager had provoked an upturn in form that had lifted them out of the relegation zone and to the brink of survival.
A draw may have been an attractive outcome for both teams, but Wenger had spoken of his determination to end the campaign on a high ahead of the FA Cup final. Momentum was key, but having named an unchanged side for six successive matches, he opted to freshen up his team this time around.
Wilshere’s recent bright cameos off the bench were rewarded with a starting place at the expense of Francis Coquelin, with the England international lining up on the right. That meant Aaron Ramsey moving into the centre alongside Cazorla.
The only other change saw Kieran Gibbs drafted in at left back, with Nacho Monreal dropping to the bench.
Having not scored in their previous two home matches, Arsenal started as if they had a point to prove, pinning the visitors back in their own half and dominating possession.
With Hector Bellerin’s searing pace causing problems, the Gunners were straight on to the front foot and their tactic to target Sunderland’s left flank soon started to bear fruit.
Indeed, the first opportunity of note came down that avenue as Wilshere was played in on goal, but his touch was heavy and Pantilimon was able to smother the loose ball.
The red waves continued to build, with Wilshere blasting over the bar before Cazorla tested Pantilimon from distance.
Ozil was next to have a go, but was off target after being found by Wilshere in the area while Giroud volleyed a difficult opportunity wide of the far post moments later.
Despite their dominance, the Gunners were frustrated by Advocaat’s side who, living up to Wenger’s pre-match prediction, stacked men behind the ball and looked to break on the counter.
In truth, the visitors were barely a threat in an attacking sense. Their primary aim seemed to be to keep a clean sheet at all costs and they made it to the break unscathed.
Arsenal may have had it all their own way in the first half, but Sunderland flew out of the traps after the restart as the game opened up.
David Ospina, who had barely had a touch in the previous 45 minutes, was called into action twice in quick succession, first to deny Fletcher with a fine one-handed stop and then Van Aanholt.
That exchange sent hearts racing inside the Emirates, and provoked an instant response.
The Gunners immediately burst forward, with Ramsey spreading the ball out to the overlapping Bellerin on the right flank. The Spaniard had already sent in several threatening crosses, and again delivered a devilish low ball that Giroud diverted on goal only for Pantilimon to palm it away.
Moments later Bellerin was involved once more, this time crossing high for Gibbs to plant a firm header on goal. Once more Sunderland’s keeper was equal to it.
It was frenetic stuff, and second after Alexis had a shot blocked inside the area, the visitors sent Fletcher clean through on goal. With Arsenal hearts in mouths, they were once again indebted to Ospina, who stood tall and got a hand to the striker’s chipped shot and deflected it out for a corner.
Fletcher then wasted an even better chance when he threw himself at Van Aanholt’s low shot but diverted his shot high and wide with the goal gaping.
It was a big let-off for the hosts, and they nearly made Fletcher pay for his profligacy when Walcott - fresh off the bench - saw a show cleared off the line after being played in by Ramsey.
As frustration grew, the chances continued to come - but not always by traditional means with Billy Jones hitting his own bar with an ill-judged attempt at a headed backpass.
Tomas Rosicky late introduction nearly paid immediate dividends as he curled one just wide, but the goal the Gunners craved would not come on a frustrating night in north London.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Copyright 2018 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.