Date: 21st February 2010 at 12:18pm
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After the tribulations of the week where the hot topic has been Arsenal goalkeepers, it was back to the bread and butter of league business with the visit of Sunderland, who have suffered the Arsenal hex, having not won a single Premiership match since the reverse fixture in November. That`ll learn em. We gathered in the Tavern early to watch Everton`s very well deserved 3-1 win over United, which breathed a new importance into our fixture. Everton strike me more and more as an endearing cousin to Arsenal. Punching well above their weight as they compete year on year with far more resourced clubs, a manager that makes few singings but when he does they are invariably good ones allied to the fact that they seem to terminally suffer a lengthy injury list. Yesterday had an added importance personally too, as it was my nephew`s 18th birthday and we took him to the game and arranged for his birthday to be announced in the programme and over the tannoy at half time. It`s something of a ritual in my family that the men receive a specially made cannon pendant necklace on their 18th birthdays (well, so long as they actually support Arsenal that is!), so being able to carry on that tradition later in the evening was a moment of great sentiment.

There was something of a pleasant surprise too when Fabianski`s name was cheered loudly when announced amongst the subs. Perhaps it is to damn our support with feint praise that I half expected him to be booed. Due to a plethora of injuries in their midfield, Sunderland were left with little option but to play a striker on their right hand side and a central defender in central midfield. Arsenal meanwhile opted to change their right side with a more thrusting duo of Eboue and Walcott. Arsenal looked instantly to exploit a gaping hole in Sunderland`s left side when Fabregas turned an excellent long pass over the top of McCartney, despite being disadvantaged to the tune of about six yards, Walcott breezed past McCartney and onto the ball but dragged a shot wide from a demanding angle. Once more Arsenal looked to seek advantage on the right when Eboue played a simple ball down the line in behind McCartney again, Walcott yet again utterly outstripped McCartney from a standing start and motored onto the ball, but his team mates couldn`t keep pace, forcing Walcott to chance his arm from a tight angle. Bruce had seen quite enough of his left side being torn from hem to seem and switched Anton Ferdinand to left back with McCartney dropping into central midfield and Darren Bent was asked to play on the left of midfield. It looked to stem the flow initially as Arsenal`s next chance came from their left side. Ramsey had done incredibly well to maintain possession after slipping on the turf, Fabregas found Nasri in a pocket of space on the left and he pulled back for Bendtner, the big Dane turned and saw his shot blocked by McCartney with the resulting ricochet taking the ball onto the crossbar. Thereafter another deflection in the area took Arsenal close as Fabregas worked a short corner to Nasri who was left to hit a left footed shot which flew narrowly over the bar via Michael Turner`s studs.

But the visitors fired a warning shot of their own, Darren Bent slipped a through ball to Fraizer Campbell which Vermaelen bizarrely stood and watched, leaving Gael Clichy to move over and provide some distraction, as Almunia was out and smothered Campbell`s close range attempt. But the warning shot did little to knock Arsenal out of their attacking stride and they assumed the lead on 27minutes. Emmanuel Eboue exposed the defensive inexperience in Darren Bent by roaring past him and then Ferdinand on the left and driving a low cross into the box which Nicklas Bendtner was on hand to stroke into an empty net from all of two yards. It`s not often Arsenal players drive into an opponent`s penalty area with that sort of conviction and even less often that there is an Arsenal body present in the six yard area to convert low crosses, so this was a most pleasing goal indeed and a great fillip to the confidence of Bendtner. However, the acclaim was all Eboue`s for his foray and rightly so.

But Sunderland might well have been back in the game with an instant riposte. Ramsey over elaborated on the ball in his own half, Richardson was quick to nip in and dispossess him before playing a slide rule pass to Kenwyne Jones. Just as he had at Upton Park, Silvestre got caught trying to push up for offside far too late and allowed his man to go through unopposed, but thankfully Jones contrived to blast wide. Had Denilson given the ball away in the manner Ramsey did, I dread to think of the howls of derision in the stadium. But the Gunners were clearly looking to their right side for the inspiration and Silvestre swept an excellent forty yard pass across to Walcott on the right flank, Ferdinand backed off terrified of feeling the effects of Theo`s afterburners, allowing Walcott to send in a low cross which Gordon just managed to get to before the prowling Bendtner, who was again foraging for scraps in the six yard box.

Having played a taxing European game on the continent on Wednesday night, it was perhaps understandable that Arsenal`s level dropped in the second half. A left wing free kick from Cesc Fabregas narrowly evaded the studs of the lunging Thomas Vermaelen on the far post. From there the game quietened until Emmanuel Eboue`s quick throw in found Walcott in an ocean of space on the right, he made a beeline for the penalty area before cutting in onto his left foot and forcing a sprawling save from Craig Gordon. But nerves were beginning to set into an anxious crowd. The Sunderland keeper Craig Gordon curiously still seemed happy to take his time with his goal kicks until around the 80th minute of the match, a clear sign that Sunderland were planning to keep the score down to one and hit a tired Arsenal side in the last ten minutes. It was from one of his goal kicks that the nerviest of moments emerged. Jones flicked on the route one clearance to Bent with Silvestre again lagging behind, but Almunia was out smartly to smother Bent`s finish. It capped a good game for Almunia, who didn`t have a great deal to do, but kept his concentration at such a level that he was able to make the interceptions required of him. Yet again, Eboue would prove to be a thorn in Sunderland`s left side, yet again he drove into the box with a determined run, motoring to the by line before pulling the ball back to Ramsey, whose shot was blocked at the crucial moment by Turner.

That run from Eboue appeared to spark Arsenal back into life as they searched for a second goal. Nasri popped up on the right, twisted and turned Ferdinand before sending a low shot goalwards which Gordon turned away. The ball bobbled around the box and Turner and McCartney got in a tangle and Walcott nearly intercepted their bungled back pass to Gordon. The ball broke loose to Fabregas, whose pull back found Nasri just off balance as he steered the ball wide with his left foot. Nerves began to jangle in injury time with a carbon copy of the situation in our last home game against Liverpool. Darren Bent stumbled under no challenge (he didn`t dive, he just genuinely lost balance) and Steve Bennett gave a ridiculous free kick which Zenden thankfully drove straight into the wall.

Arsenal immediately broke and when Fabregas sauntered into the area on the right, Fraizer Campbell clumsily hauled him to the floor for Arsenal`s third penalty of the season. Bendtner wanted it but the captain pulled rank and stepped up to coolly slot precisely into the bottom right hand corner to seal the three points. It was a deserved three points with many players putting in good performances. Eboue was probably the most eye catching player on the pitch; Walcott demonstrated what an effective player he can be, though he needs to show a little more composure in the area. Clichy, Song and the centre halves appeared to stay in their positions rather than all foraging forward like randy, groping teenagers and Almunia made match saving interventions when called upon. The set up had an attacking bent to it with Eboue and Ramsey coming in for the sturdier Sagna and Denilson. I suspect the two omitted would come back into the starting line up for the Stoke game, but it`s a positive sign that we can show some variety depending on the opponents and the circumstances. We exploited the fact that Sunderland were forced to play with two penalty box strikers covering the wings, but Arsenal are often accused of playing the same way without appreciating their opponent`s weaknesses so this was a refreshing occurrence. With United losing, we`re two points behind them and six behind Chelsea with eleven games to go. It`s a tall order and I still suspect the biggest test would be how we would pass the psychological examination if we were to creep back into the picture as something other than stark outsiders. For now, Stoke City away will test our credentials to the fullest.LD.

1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE (15.Denilson `89), 5.VERMAELEN, 18.SILVESTRE, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY, 4.FABREGAS(c), 14.WALCOTT (3.Sagna `78), 8.NASRI (7.Rosicky `72), 52.BENDTNER. Unused: 12.Vela, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore, 31.Campbell.