By Nik Brumsack at Stadium of Light
Jack Wilshere made his first-team return as Arsenal were held to a goalless draw by Sunderland on Sunday afternoon.
In a high-octane fixture, both sides could perhaps count themselves unfortunate not to pick up what would have been a vital three points.
Sunderland came closest to winning it - Patrick van Aanholt’s first-half free-kick striking the post - though Arsenal made plenty of chances too, with the best of them falling to Alex Iwobi.
Both sides had penalty appeals for handball waved away before the break and both would continue to make chances after the interval, though were denied by a mixture of inprecise passing and some good saves by Petr Cech and Vito Mannone.
Wilshere came on for the final seven minutes and looked sharp but ultimately couldn’t inspire Arsène Wenger’s side to what would have been an important victory.
At the end of it, a point probably suited the hosts more. Sunderland are out of the relegation zone now, but are level on points with 17th-placed Norwich.
Arsenal meanwhile, remain in fourth ahead of next weekend’s visit of the Canaries.
SETTING THE SCENE
The big news in the lead-up to kick-off centred around Wilshere’s inclusion in the squad. The England international hadn’t featured for the first team since last season’s FA Cup final but, after coming through three matches for the under-21s, was deemed fit enough for a place on the bench.
Changes were perhaps expected to the Arsenal side, considering this game kicked off so soon - in fact 64 hours - after Thursday’s win over West Bromwich Albion.
It was slightly surprising then, that Wenger stuck with the same side that had comfortably beaten West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium on Thursday.
That meant Per Mertesacker started alongside Laurent Koscielny at centre half, with Olivier Giroud retaining his place as the spearhead of Arsenal’s attack.
The hosts came into this game knowing a point would take them out of the relegation zone. Sam Allardyce’s side had only lost two of their last nine Premier League games and included former Gunner Mannone in their starting line-up.
While Sunderland have struggled at home this season, Sam Allardyce’s side had seen form improve in 2016, and knew a point here would take them out of the relegation zone. Former Gunner Mannone started in goal, with Sebastian Larsson among their substitutes.
As they did on Thursday night, Arsenal started on the front foot. This time though, there would be no early reward, despite Iwobi going close with a firmly-struck 20 yard shot.
Wenger’s side had dominated possession in the opening stages but gradually Sunderland grew into the match. Wahbi Khazri saw a shot deflected just off target and Lee Cattermole lashed just wide from the edge of the area.
Allardyce’s side were enjoying a good spell and came even closer midway through the first half, when Van Aanholt’s free-kick cannoned off the post.
That scare prompted Arsenal into action. They responded with a free-kick of their own - Alexis seeing his curling effort well kept out by Mannone. Iwobi was next to threaten, seeing his goal-bound effort from the resulting corner blocked behind.
Then came the controversy. Hector Bellerin failed to deal with Fabio Borini’s low cross and, when Jermain Defoe’s fierce shot hit Mertesacker on the elbow from close range, the German was relieved to see referee Mike Dean not point to the spot.
Defoe sank to his knees in frustration and Arsenal immediately went on the attack. Again Iwobi was heavily involved, meeting Giroud’s lay off 12 yards from goal. Again however, the young Nigerian was denied by a covering defender - the ball deflecting against DeAndre Yedlin's arm on its way wide.
Sunderland, knowing a win would take them two points clear of the relegation zone, started the second period in the ascendancy.
Jermain Defoe, with three goals in his previous five games, was at the heart of much of their good work and forced Cech into a decent save after escaping the clutches of Mertesacker.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was required to save from Yann M’Vila and Khazri too but, with Sunderland pouring more and more men forward, Arsenal remained a threat on the break.
Too often however, Wenger’s team were let down by uncharacteristically sloppy distribution in the final third. When they did create an opening, Iwobi skewed a very presentable opportunity well wide.
This game was becoming increasingly stretched - and that seemed to suit the hosts.
Defoe chipped just wide from the edge of the box and then failed to play Borini through on goal when well placed.
Arsenal were on the ropes but fought back after Lamine Kone had come inches away from meeting a Khazri corner.
Theo Walcott, brought on for Iwobi, almost found Alexis unmarked in the area before fellow substitute Danny Welbeck raced through, only to be denied by Mannone, who had raced from his goal.
Wilshere was introduced with seven minutes to go too and helped to provide fresh impetus and energy to Arsenal’s midfield, with one trademark sharp turn taking him away from Cattermole.
Both sides could have won it late on. Alexis drew a smart stop from Mannone at one end and Kone volleyed over at the other - but somehow this match would finish goalless.
Referee: Mike Dean
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