Arsenal traveled to the Stadium of Light to face an upbeat Sunderland outfit who had been on an amazing run since the appointment of Martin O’Neill as manager. The Gunners were made to work for their win, and would be delighted to have left the North East with all three points courtesy of a late goal by legendary striker Thierry Henry. It was Sunderland though who had opened the scoring in the second half after a poor first half showing by both sides, through James McLean, who took advantage of Per Mertesacker’s injury to slot the ball home. The Gunners though were not to be denied and equalised just minutes later through Aaron Ramsey, who ironically had come on to replace Mertesacker. As the match seemed headed for a draw, substitute Andrey Arshavin provided a gem of a cross for Henry, who was left with the easy task of slotting the ball home from close range, much to the delight of Manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal now move to fourth in the table, level on points with Chelsea who lost their game to Everton. Sunderland meanwhile drop to 9th in the table, 2 points behind Norwich City.
Hosts Sunderland began the game with a 4-4-1-1 formation with Fraizer Campbell leading the line in the absence of the ineligible Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon operating just behind him. Craig Gardner and Jack Colback took their place at the centre of the field, while James McClean and Sebastian Larsson were deployed out wide. Sunderland’s defence comprised of Michael Turner and John O’Shea at the centre, with Phil Bardsley on the right and Kieran Richardson on the left.
Arsenal meanwhile started with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bacary Sagna returning to his customary right back position and Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen completing the back four. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta were deployed in the midfield while ahead of them were the attacking trio of Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Talismanic striker Robin Van Persie was once again deployed as the lone man upfront.
The visitors were on the front foot from the word go and began the match very brightly. Sunderland on the other hand were restricted to hopeful long balls as they struggled to cope with the passing and the movement of Arsenal players. The hosts though eventually began to grow in stature as the frequency of their forays into Arsenal’s half increased.
The Black Cats then caused considerable confusion in Arsenal’s box in the 14th minute, only for Sessegnon to delay his pass a bit too much, thereby only resulting in a corner. The match though was largely proving to be a drab affair, with both sets of defences reigning supreme.
Theo Walcott did have a chance in the 23rd minute as he was released by Van Persie, but his attempted shot went wide of the goal. By this point of the match, the Gunners had once again taken control of the match and were dictating terms, although with no real penetration. Vermaelen’s cross from the left in the 36th minute did look promising, although his centre fell behind Van Persie who tried to control it but lost out to the defenders eventually. Sunderland then had a call for a penalty turned down 3 minutes later as Mertesacker lost his footing and handled the ball, only for Neil Swarbrick to turn down the appeals.
Van Persie then cushioned a header into Rosicky’s path a couple of minutes later, only for the midfielder’s shot to be valiantly blocked by Turner. The hosts had an excellent opportunity late in the half on the counter, but Colback delayed his pass as the chance went begging. Both sides hence went into the dressing room level pegging.
The second half started much like the first, with the Gunners pushing forward with purpose and Sunderland trying to hold fort at the back. The hosts had a rare chance in the 52nd minute as Gardner’s freekick fell to John O’Shea, but the former Manchester United man chose power over placement and blasted his shot into the stands.
Both teams created a few more half chances, but neither possessed the incisiveness required to break the deadlock. At this point the game looked set to end in a draw, barring a defensive lapse or a moment of brilliance.
At the hour mark, Sunderland had a brief spell of dominance and came extremely close to scoring as Gardner’s shot from outside the box bounced awkwardly for Szczesny, with the Pole just managing to keep it out. Sensing a resurgence of sorts from Sunderland, manager Arsene Wenger then threw on Thierry Henry for youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had struggled to get the better of Phil Bardsley.
Sunderland though did manage to get in front in the 70th minute albeit fortuitously, as Mertesacker twisted his ankle while in possession of the ball near his own box and fell down, and McClean pounced on the loose ball and stormed into the area before blasting his shot past Szczesny from a very acute angle. The lead, however, lasted only 5 minutes as Arsenal equalised courtesy of substitute Aaron Ramsey, whose shot from just outside the box deflected off both the posts before rolling into the back of the net.
O’Shea had another chance in the 77th minute, although this time the defender failed to properly connect with the ball. The game became far more open in the last 10 minutes or so, with both sides throwing caution to the wind and attacking with gusto. Van Persie had a late attempt in the 89th minute as he tamely headed a cross straight into Mignolet’s hands.
However, in a script that could only have been written in dreams, Henry tucked away an excellent cross by substitute Andrei Arshavin in the 91st minute to win the match for his side, in what was his penultimate match in his loan stint at the Emirates.
Arsene Wenger will be delighted with the result, especially with both Chelsea and Liverpool having lost more ground. Thierry Henry proved to be the difference between the two sides, although Arshavin deserves special mention for his cross. The Gunners now travel to Italy, to face AC Milan in the all important Champions League tie on the 15th of February. Sunderland on the other hand put in a good shift throughout the match and will be gutted that they were not able to take a share of the spoils. They will look to redeem themselves when Arsenal return here next Saturday for an FA Cup 5th Round tie.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Richardson, O’Shea, Larsson, Gardner, Colback, McClean, Sessegnon, Campbell (Ji 87’)
Subs: Westwood, Bridge, Kyrgiakos, Meyler, Elmohamady, Wickham, Ji Dong-Won
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker (Ramsey 72’), Koscielny, Vermaelen, Song, Arteta, Rosicky, Walcott (Arshavin 87’), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Henry 66’), Van Persie.
Subs: Fabianski, Gibbs, Coquelin, Ramsey, Arshavin, Benayoun, Henry.
Final Scoreline: Sunderland 1-2 Arsenal (McClean 70’, Ramsey 75’, Henry 91’)