Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0 – Full match report

Fraizer Campbell
Fraizer Campbell
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THE glass half-empty brigade might point out that Sunderland drew away against a leading club on the opening day of last season, too, and 13 games later the manager was sacked.

But only the most churlish would deny that this was a fabulous point for Sunderland under the circumstances.

To hold Champions League Arsenal – albeit one in major transition – to a draw at the Emirates in the wake of the Wearsiders’ flat pre-season and minimal transfer activity was a tremendous plus.

And it means Martin O’Neill’s men will have momentum behind them going into their first home game of the season – the opportunity which is newly-promoted Reading this Saturday.

Of course, Sunderland were aided at the weekend by the departure of arch-nemesis Robin van Persie – scorer of five goals in the last four home games against the Black Cats – but now at Manchester United.

In this fixture last season, he scored Arsenal’s earliest ever Premier League goal when he netted 29 seconds into the game.

But without him on Saturday, the Gunners never quite looked like finding the goalscoring ruthlessness the Dutch master so regularly used to provide.

Arsene Wenger included new signings Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla in a bid to introduce new dangers into his reshaped side.

But fit-again Theo Walcott and Gervinho – employed as strikers either side of the German recruit – proved just as threatening over the course of a 90 minutes in which the home team’s dominance became increasingly complete.

As expected, O’Neill opted for a 4-5-1 formation with Craig Gardner deployed as an able deputy for injured right-back Phil Bardsley, a decision which allowed debutant Carlos Cuellar to be partnered by John O’Shea in central defence.

Stephane Sessegnon had recovered sufficiently from an ankle injury to take up the challenging job of lone striker on a day which proved to be the hottest of the year, the Benin international’s availability meaning new signing Louis Saha was left on the bench.

Arsenal started with their usual slick passing, but it was Sunderland who created the first opening on goal.

It was a good one as well – Kieran Richardson’s slide-rule pass down the left channel playing in James McClean, whose powerful, low shot from eight yards out was goalbound but from too narrow an angle to trouble Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made a good block.

The hosts found an instant reply and Simon Mignolet did well to stretch a glove overhead to parry a rising Cazorla volley from distance in the sixth minute.

The Spanish midfielder is going to be some player this season and it was perhaps another piece of good fortune for Sunderland that he was playing his first game for his new club after playing a midweek international in Puerto Rico.

The Black Cats continued with their game plan of defending deep and looking to hit on the counter-attack when the opportunity presented itself.

In the 10th minute, they carved out another chance from their most fluid move of the game – Sessegnon teeing up Jack Colback, whose first-time shot in front of goal, 20 yards out, was straight at the keeper, who made a save at the second attempt.

This, though, was to be pretty much the end of Sunderland as a genuine goal threat for the remainder of the game.

Sunderland were sliced apart in the 18th minute when Gervinho got the better of Gardner down the left-wing channel and pulled the ball back for Cazorla in the box, the Spaniard rifling his shot wide of Mignolet’s right-hand post.

This was to be the pattern of play for so much of the match from now on – Arsenal producing sporadic attacks but unable to find a quality finish.

Three times, Walcott, with a 150th Premier League appearance to forget, wasted good openings in front of goal.

Abou Diaby did better but found Mignolet equal to a low effort which threatened the right-hand corner of his goal before the Belgian palmed it around the post.

Sunderland looked relatively comfortable but occasionally they didn’t help themselves – sloppy mistakes by first Fraizer Campbell, then Seb Larsson, in their own half, were the biggest threats to the Black Cats reaching the break without conceding.

But reach it they did and suddenly we had a different sort of game on our hands.

Usually at this stage you would have expected an irritated Arsenal to emerge after the break, up their game and tempo and overwhelm Sunderland’s resistance.

They succeeded in terms of possession and, with Sessegnon fading rapidly in the heat, Sunderland found themselves barely able to get out of their own half.

But Arsenal were unable to turn their dominance into clear-cut chances and failed to really threaten until just before the hour when Walcott earned a free-kick and Podolski’s shot from right of goal, a left-foot curler, flashed just over the crossbar.

That was followed up swiftly by Cazorla, in the 61st minute, thumping a low shot wide after Gervinho had tormented Sunderland’s defence.

Tired legs were now becoming obvious among the visitors and O’Neill acted to remove the most seriously affected – first Sessegnon, then Campbell, then Larsson.

Their replacements – Saha, Ahmed Elmohamady and David Meyler – all made excellent contributions.

Saha showed good touch, awareness and composure, Elmohamady had the legs to offer his team-mates an escape pass while Meyler was effectively busy.

As a result, the Sunderland goal was never under the sort of siege it has been under many times in the past in this fixture.

Arsene Wenger, too, made changes – including bringing on the last of his major summer captures – Olivier Giroud.

But, once again, the absence of van Persie only seemed to be highlighted when Giroud blasted the best chance of the game wide from 12 yards in the 82nd minute.

Cazorla, who set up more shots than any other Premier League player at the weekend, saved the best for last – producing a clever, defence-splitting pass to play his team-mate directly in on goal.

It was the sort of chance van Persie used to dream of at the Emirates, but Giroud fluffed his big moment, driving a shot wide with only the keeper to beat.

Suddenly, Sunderland began to sense the finishing line and found a new spring in their step, keeping the ball well and even getting into the opposition half a couple of times.

Arsenal huffed and puffed at the climax and then hoped to make the most of four minutes added on.

But there was to be no heartbreak for Sunderland’s heroes.

At the final whistle, O’Neill’s game plan had worked admirably.

His players’ tenacity and mental toughness had seen them through to a deserved clean sheet – a third goalless draw in the last five visits to Arsenal.

They will look to the manager now to bring in the flair and the firepower which ensures that, for the remainder of the season, we’re talking as much about the high quality of Sunderland’s attack, as we are today about the durability of their defence.