ROBIN van Persie has been the speed demon in the Premier League’s fast lane this season.
A stunning tally of 22 goals in 24 top-flight outings prior to Saturday’s trip to the Stadium of Light has made the Dutchman the most feared hitman in the division – Sunderland themselves could pay testimony to that after being slayed by the striker’s double at the Emirates earlier in the season.
So perhaps more galling than a last-gasp defeat to the Gunners, more frustrating than failing to grasp an opportunity to narrow the gap with the neighbours, was that Sunderland subdued van Persie, yet succumbed to Arsenal’s Rolls-Royce.
There was a poetic aspect about a fairytale winner for Thierry Henry in the last stop on his Premier League farewell tour, but it was a goal which owed much to the ailing legs in Sunderland’s ranks.
Andrey Arshavin was given the room to dink in an inswinging cross which was too low for Simon Mignolet to gather and Henry marched between the static John O’Shea and Michael Turner to divert the ball home from point-blank range.
Would Sunderland have conceded so softly had their legs and, perhaps more importantly minds, not endured 120 gruelling minutes at the Riverside in midweek? Probably not.
Sunderland have prided themselves on their defensive resilience over recent weeks – a first double in the goals against column since December 22 is testament to that.
The sight of stand-in skipper O’Shea shaking his head as he trudged off the pitch with his dejected team-mates, told the story of the disappointment in Sunderland’s ranks that all their faultless work at the back was undermined in the final 15 minutes.
Van Persie never got a shot on target, such was the diligent work Sunderland produced in harnessing the 28-year-old.
There were moments when van Persie threatened as Arsenal manipulated the ball through Sunderland’s midfield into the striker’s feet – most notably midway through the first half when he fed Theo Walcott down the right-hand channel, only for the England man to thrash his shot across the face.
But those fleeting forays of fright from van Persie were scarce as Michael Turner superbly marshalled the former Feyenoord man, while O’Shea mopped up the danger from Arsenal’s band of runners from midfield.
Throw in Sunderland’s supporting cast who were more than willing to throw bodies on the line to block anything which van Persie unleashed given even half-a-yard of space, it was impeccable handling of Arsenal’s dangerman from the hosts.
Van Persie was hardly blessed with an abundance of service in the right areas though, such was the discipline of Sunderland’s 4-5-1 formation in frustrating the Gunners.
O’Neill’s ploy of packing midfield and sitting deep in an attempt to hit Arsene Wenger’s men on the counter-attack was no surprise, given Sunderland’s success with that strategy in subduing Arsenal wannabes Swansea last month.
Other than Per Mertesacker’s basketball dribble, the system failed to produce any significant threat on Arsenal’s goal until Craig Gardner’s two smartly-saved efforts from the edge of the area just after the hour mark.
But, from a defensive point of view, Sunderland similarly shackled Arsenal at the other end.
Tomas Rosicky was the one who tried to conjure the pass to unlock Sunderland’s defence, but, with Walcott his typical headless chicken self and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain failing to live up to the recent guffawing, there were precious few options for the Czech to pick out.
Neither were Rosicky’s fellow central midfielders any more fruitful amid the hustle and bustle of Sunderland pressure from the trio of Gardner, Jack Colback and Seb Larsson.
Gardner, in particular, was dogged in tailing Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, continuing to rob Arsenal of possession during those periods when Sunderland struggled to see anything of the ball.
Perhaps it’s an inevitable perk of a regular spot in the team, but Gardner is starting to become a more rounded figure in the middle of the park, showing more than just the eye for goal which so nearly handed Sunderland the lead before James McClean’s opener.
It was the outcome after McClean’s goal, though, which shocked, such has been the fortitude Sunderland have shown whenever they have got their noses in front under O’Neill.
Arsenal admittedly had a slice of fortune with Aaron Ramsey’s leveller as the Welsh midfielder poked the ball through a posse of players, beyond the unsighted Mignolet, via both posts.
But from the moment Ramsey equalised, especially as it came so soon after McClean’s goal, there were was almost an inevitably about the outcome.
The adrenaline seeped out of Sunderland’s legs, to be replaced by sheer exhaustion, and Arsenal were able to pin the Black Cats back as they searched for that match-winning second.
The roles will be reversed this weekend when Arsenal attempt to recover from their Champions League trip to AC Milan and perhaps that may see Sunderland somewhat loosen the shackles from their defensive approach.
It’s difficult to envisage van Persie playing three games in a week and if Wenger rings the changes, then Sunderland could well adopt a more “up and at them” strategy.
Even if van Persie does start in the FA Cup fifth round, Sunderland at least proved on Saturday that he can be tamed, even if his predecessor as Arsenal’s talisman had the last laugh.