Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0 – Big match verdict

Carlos Cuellar
Carlos Cuellar
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STAN Varga was the last Sunderland centre-half to enjoy a dream opening-day debut against Arsenal.

While Carlos Cuellar hardly left Alan Hansen gushing with a display of 70-yard crossfield passes, neither was there an impression at the Emirates on Saturday that this was a one-off which the Spaniard will struggle to live up to.

Sunderland’s Bosman summer signings haven’t necessarily captivated public imagination on Wearside.

Louis Saha is a much-needed experienced addition to the frontline – albeit, from Martin O’Neill’s own admission, one who must be the first of two new strikers – while Cuellar is a solid performer who was nevertheless part of an Aston Villa side that toiled last season.

But Cuellar was one of the few to show some form during pre-season and continued that in the scalding heat of North London with an exemplary display of anticipation and interception.

Sunderland’s set-up suited both Cuellar and central defensive partner John O’Shea, with O’Neill typically setting the Black Cats up to make the most of the experience and nous at the heart of his back four.

The Black Cats’ defensive line seldom strayed much further forward than the edge of their own penalty area, thus denying the Gunners the chance to unleash their speedsters in behind.

Theo Walcott broke away from O’Shea down the inside right-hand channel just before the interval – only to be denied by Kieran Richardson’s last-gasp interception – and Olivier Giroud sliced horribly wide in the second half after being slipped in.

But they were the rare moments when Sunderland’s central defenders were left scrambling.

For the most part, it was that oh-so familiar tale from Arsenal – the slick pass and move ultimately complemented by a lack of ideas and a panicked effort from the edge of the area which couldn’t thread the eye of the needle.

The most encouraging aspect of Cuellar’s display, though, was his knack of reading the game.

Three times in the first half, he was put under needless pressure through misplaced passes from Seb Larsson or Fraizer Campbell and on each occasion he shrugged the danger off with a timely, unflustered challenge.

When Arsene Wenger’s side took a punt on pushing numbers into the box and participating in a spot of penalty area pinball, too, Cuellar was similarly alert – mopping up the scraps and clearing his lines in a way his predecessor Michael Turner never quite managed.

An opening-day stalemate was a success for the collective rather than the individual though and Cuellar didn’t have to look too far up the pitch for fellow success stories.

O’Shea must now be considered as an out-and-out centre-half rather than a makeshift defender, while Richardson and Craig Gardner made light of Arsenal’s array of riches out wide.

Gardner was skinned by Gervinho as the Ivorian burst down the left-hand channel in the 19th minute, but that was his only blemish. Surely, while Phil Bardsley is convalescing, the former Birmingham City man is Sunderland’s best option at right-back.

Richardson, meanwhile, provides a quandary over the next fortnight.

The former Manchester United man always seems to revel against one-trick pony Theo Walcott when faced with a pure sprinting contest.

Alternative quality left-backs on the market are scarce, too, and even though Richardson has expressed a desire to end his five-year stay at the Stadium of Light, O’Neill is unlikely to consider any sale until a replacement is signed and sealed.

Walcott was the only player to try to inject some pace into Arsenal’s increasingly predictable approach in the second half, as the others wilted to a languid tempo in the heat.

But Richardson was never flustered – shepherding the England international into positions where he was forced to deliver his non-existent end product and then mopping up the danger in behind the centre-halves on the rare occasions when the ball bypassed them.

The only other fear for Sunderland was that Gunners debutant Santi Cazorla would conjure some magic in a jittery finale for the Black Cats.

The former Malaga man impressed and will shine in a month or so when he is more attuned to the Premier League.

He didn’t need too much of an induction course on Saturday, though, after being handed the floating role in behind ineffective fellow summer signings Lukas Podolski and then Giroud.

But gradually Lee Cattermole got a grip on Cazorla and was the dominant midfield figure in the second half, breaking up Arsenal’s rhythm and relieving the pressure on the Black Cats.

For all Cattermole’s tenacity and level-headedness in remaining on his feet though, the problem for the Sunderland skipper was that there was nothing to pick out going forward when he won the ball, beyond the opening half hour.

After Jack Colback’s forward bursts ceased, Stephane Sessegnon became leggy and was reduced to the roll of a stroller and James McClean’s attempts at creation resulted in him giving the ball away, O’Neill’s side crept into their defensive shell.

Sunderland were utterly redundant as an attacking force for the final two thirds of the game and that was the aspect of the display which was too predictable beforehand.

At the Emirates, against a richly-assembled new Arsenal attack, that was not such a concern. But against Reading and Swansea in the next two Premier League encounters, there won’t be such leeway.

O’Neill is trying to address that problem, though, and, for the moment at least, he can relish the sight of his side defending doggedly for a not-to-be underestimated morale-boosting opening-day point.

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