By Rob Kelly at the Stadium of Light
Arsenal upped the ante on their title rivals with an impressive 4-1 win against Sunderland in the lunchtime kick off on Saturday.
The Gunners went into the game knowing that a victory would put them top of the table, perhaps temporarily, and they were soon into their stride.
Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin had early chances during the opening exchanges, before Alexis put the visitors in front with a bullet header.
Arsene Wenger’s side could have been further ahead at the break, but spurned some good opportunities - and were made to pay when Sunderland equalised through Jermain Defoe’s penalty just after the hour mark.
But the Gunners responded superbly, going back in front when Olivier Giroud - just off the bench - volleyed in, and the France international put the game to bed minutes later with a glancing header.
There was still time for Alexis to make it four when he twisted and turned in the area to poke home from close range, sealing an excellent attacking display.
It was another reminder of the squad strength that Wenger has at his disposal this season - and laid down a marker to their rivals ahead of the rest of the weekend’s games.
SETTING THE SCENE
Sitting second in the table and facing the bottom club, Arsenal came into this game as heavy favourites, with all the pre-match stats favouring them too.
A run of one defeat in 23 games in all competitions, coupled with a defensive record of seven clean sheets in eight, had galvanised confidence ahead of a potentially tricky test.
Wenger’s side were also bolstered by an impressive record against Sunderland that had seen them lose just once in 25 matches, while conceding just eight times in 15 visits to the Black Cats.
But both the manager and Petr Cech had spoken in the build-up of their belief that the hosts had played far better than their league position suggested - and with Defoe up front, they certainly posed a danger.
Wenger also had to contend with the absence of both Theo Walcott and Nacho Monreal with minor injuries, with Santi Cazorla also sidelined.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was rewarded for his brace in the midweek win against Reading with a place on the right flank, while Kieran Gibbs filled in at left back.
Elsewhere, Aaron Ramsey returned to the bench after recovering from the hamstring injury he sustained on the opening day of the season, while teenager Ainsley Maitland-Niles retained his place in the squad.
With the sun streaming down and barely a spare seat in sight for this lunchtime kick off, there was a palpable buzz of anticipation around the Stadium of Light prior to kick off.
Wenger had insisted that despite Sunderland’s struggles, they had played far better than their lowly league position suggested - and they started brightly, biting into tackles and spraying the ball about.
But Arsenal soon started to get their passing game going, moving it around slickly and stretching the hosts defence as they sought to pick holes in the defence.
Their pressing and probing soon saw Alexis pick out Ozil in the box with a angled pass, but with just Jordan Pickford to beat the German curled his shot into the hands of the goalkeeper.
Sixty seconds later, the visitors had another opportunity as Coquelin raced in on goal after preying on an error but as he reached the edge of the box, Lamine Kone bundled it away.
It was a golden chance, but Wenger’s side would not have long to wait for the opener - and when it came, it was a cracker.
Oxlade-Chamberlain - full of confidence after a start to the season that has seen him score five times already - was the instigator, dropping his shoulder and bursting past Duncan Watmore on the right, and whipping in a fine cross.
Alexis threw himself at the ball as he forced his way past John O’Shea, glancing a bullet header into the top left-hand corner, sparking ecstatic celebrations from the Chilean and his team-mates.
It was just the start the Gunners wanted, but they had a warning it might not all be their own way when, a few minutes later, Patrick Van Aanholt curled a free kick inches wide of Petr Cech’s near post.
But Arsenal remained in command and they so nearly doubled their advantage when, after a swift counter, Alex Iwobi curled the ball just over the bar from the edge of the box.
Ozil had another big chance before the break when Oxlade-Chamberlain played him in on goal with a well-weighted lofted pass, but he couldn’t get enough elevation on his lob and Pickford was able to snatch it.
Arsenal remained in control after the interval, keeping hold of the ball for long stretches and winning it back as soon as they lost it - much to the frustration of the home crowd.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had a decent opportunity when Ozil played him in with a well-weighted ball over the top of the Sunderland defence, but with the distance and angle against him, he could not trouble Pickford.
Another goal seemed inevitable, and Arsenal felt they should have been given the opportunity to get it when Alexis was pulled back in the area by Papy Djilobodji, but Martin Atkinson waved play on.
That decision felt doubly frustrating when, minutes later, the referee awarded Sunderland a penalty when Watmore raced in on goal and was taken down by Cech in the area.
This time the spot kick was awarded, and Defoe converted - seemingly changing the nature of a game that the Gunners had seemed in charge of.
But Wenger’s side responded really well to the setback, and Laurent Koscielny had a chance to put his side back in front when he was left unmarked at a corner but headed over.
But it mattered not when, four minutes later, Giroud - moments after coming off the bench, met Gibbs’ cross in from the left to volley Arsenal back in front.
It was the Frenchman’s sixth goal in seven games against Sunderland, and rich reward for all his hard work in returning from the toe injury that had kept him out for a month.
The visitors kept on pushing for the third that would surely kill the game off, and they soon had it when Giroud raced to the near post to meet an Ozil corner and glanced it beyond Pickford.
It was all Arsenal, and they made it four almost straight away as they broke at speed once more, with Gibbs hitting the post, Ramsey’s shot blocked and Alexis netting from close range.
It capped an excellent afternoon’s work for the Chilean and his team, who moved top of the table ahead of the rest of the weekend’s games.
Arsenal are on the march.
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Referee: Martin Atkinson
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