Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sunderland 1 - Arsenal 2

This was a really, really good win for the Gunners, against a very well-coached and defensively sound Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light. For most of the match, a draw seemed inevitable. That Arsenal prevailed is down to patience, mental-strength, and solid team play - exactly the traits that the Gunners will need to display throughout the remainder of the season, if they are to maintain their perfect record of Champion's League qualification.

Sunderland defended deep and allowed Arsenal to come to them. That strategy worked well for most of the match, as the Gunners were unable to break them down. Arsenal's  passing wasn't as sharp as it was in the last match, especially in the final third. Van Persie had hardly had any service at all, and when he did get a touch, he always seemed to be marked by more than one defender.

The first goal of the match came after the unfortunate Per Mertesacker fell injured as he turned to clear a seemingly routine ball away from the Arsenal area. He was not challenged but simply fell over a ton of bricks. A few minutes earlier (unnoticed by the match announcers), however, the big German defender could be seen leaning over and testing his foot, suggesting that the initial injury occurred before the fall that allowed Sunderland winger James McClean in for a (relatively) easy score. For Sunderland to go up 1-0 that way was harsh. But justice was served, and the draw reinstated, five or so minutes later, when Mertesacker's replacement Aaron Ramsey scored for the Gunners. His shot from the edge of the area was not hit with great pace, but it skewed in off the post just beyond the outstretched arm of the Sunderland goalie.

After the two goals, the pace of the game quickened noticeably, as if both sides had suddenly realized that they might grab all three points instead of settling for one apiece. Both sides had decent chances, but it was Arsenal that finally took advantage in stoppage time. Almost inevitably, it was super-sub Thierry Henry, playing in his penultimate match for the Gunners before returning to the New York Red Bulls. The goal was Henry's third in five matches for the Gunners, and it was nicely set up by a fine cross from his fellow substitute, the much-maligned Andrei Arshavin.

The win is especially welcome as Arsenal's rivals for the final Champion's League spot, Liverpool and Chelsea, both went down to defeat. A draw between Tottenham and Newcastle would make for a perfect weekend. Pending the outcome of that game, the Gunners currently sit in fourth place (the final CL spot), tied on points and goal-difference with Chelsea.

UPDATE: Tottenham are in the process of crushing Newcastle, up 4-0 with little more than half an hour played at White Hart Lane. Much as Arsenal fans loath any Tottenham victory and would prefer a goalless draw, a Spurs victory ensures that Arsenal finish the weekend in fourth place. That is a more important and immediate concern than the prospect (however attractive) of chasing down Tottenham for third place.

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