Sunderland will need another defensive masterclass at Arsenal

Sunderland players celebrate at the final whistle
Sunderland players celebrate at the final whistle
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Embraced in a huddle, the quintet of John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole, Sebastian Coates, Billy Jones and Jack Rodwell celebrated with wild enthusiasm at the sweet sound of the final whistle.

After shaking hands with opposite number Arsene Wenger, Dick Advocaat let the tears famously fall as he embraced long-term assistant Bert van Lingen.

Through sheer exhaustion, Seb Larsson collapsed to the turf; his lung-sapping efforts overriding any sense of euphoria.

And in the away end, thousands propelled themselves into the air at the result which confirmed Sunderland’s place in the Premier League for another season.

There have been some remarkable days for Sunderland during their battles against survival over the last three-and-a-half years, but that May evening at the Emirates remains vivid.

As a spectacle, it was agonisingly painful as Arsenal’s efforts missed, were blocked, saved by Costel Pantilimon or even deflected off Jones’s shoulder and onto the crossbar.

We know we’ll be massive underdogs going there, but we’ve got nothing to lose

Seb Larsson

But, in the end, sheer guts and determination got Sunderland the point they needed to be mathematically certain of beating the drop.

“I think everyone remembers that day,” smiles Larsson.

This weekend’s tussle in north London is not at such a key stage of the season, yet it could be another of those defining moments for Sunderland.

Sam Allardyce’s side need to produce further unexpected results if they are to improve their plight in the relegation scrap and, while the pressure has dimmed after the back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke, this may be an opportune moment to face Arsenal.

The Gunners have taken just two points from their last three Premier League outings, and are in the midst of an injury headache which sees them robbed of key figures Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla.

Larsson said: “We know we’ll be massive underdogs going there, but we’ve got nothing to lose.

“We’ve won two games and got two clean sheets.

“It’s never a free shot when you’re down where we are.

“But there won’t necessarily be the pressure on us to win this game.

“We’ve got ourselves out of the relegation zone, although we’re by no means out of it.

“Yes, we might not be that fluent as a team all the time, but we’re working on that.

“Hopefully we can put in another good performance and keep building that confidence, and see where it takes us.”

If Sunderland are to come away with another point at Arsenal though – or even record a first league win there since 1983 – then Sunderland will need to maintain the defensive resilience demonstrated in the last two games.

For a side who were conceding an average of two-and-a-half goals earlier in the campaign, Sunderland’s greater resolve at the back has been the key ingredient behind the beginnings of a turnaround.

And Larsson – a major injury doubt to face his former club this weekend – admits Sunderland’s confidence levels have improved as a consequence.

The Sweden international said: “We needed to start somewhere. That was being a bit more solid. We feel a bit more secure, feel like we’re not giving chances away constantly and worrying about conceding goals.

“That really helps with the confidence.

“It’s the one thing we’ve worked the most on, and then trying to win the game.

“We’ve not been known for keeping clean sheets at the start of the season. We’ve been leaking goals for fun.

“But we’ve been able to rectify that for the moment, and we need to keep working hard, otherwise it can spiral down again.”