Football: Sunderland stick to basics

Sunderland 0 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO Steve Bould, the marble halls at the Stadium of Light are "more impressive" than those at Highbury. On Saturday the defensive foundations of the team that plays at the two-year-old Wearside ground were pretty impressive too.

Certainly, Sunderland, as a defensive unit, were unrecognisable from the flimsy structure that fell apart at Stamford Bridge the previous Saturday. They were not exactly a sight for Kevin Keegan or any football connoisseurs in the record 41,680 crowd to savour but they were - for the most part - solid, secure and stable.

They were strong, too, as Dennis Bergkamp and Emmanuel Petit discovered to their painful cost. Indeed, the sight of Bergkamp being shunted backwards by Bould while attempting to boldly go where few Arsenal players managed to get - into the Sunderland penalty area - was perhaps the defining moment.

Where Gianfranco Zola and company had found room to roam free, Bergkamp and his colleagues found a red and white brick wall - the kind, after his team's total collapse at Chelsea, Peter Reid is going to have to build on occasions in the top flight.

It was on a wave of free-flowing attacking football that Reid's side swept to the First Division title last season, scoring 91 goals and bagging a record 105 points. But in failing to hit the target on Saturday, and indeed in failing to trouble the Arsenal defence on more than just the one occasion, Sunderland - the team and their supporters - were still celebrating a job well done.

"I was pleased with the way it went," Reid said. "It was a hard-fought point against a very high quality side."

In deploying a five-man midfield and playing with a lone striker, a tactic he described as "sensible rather than cautious," the Sunderland manager succeeded in stifling Arsenal's creativity at source and spiking the Gunners' attacking power. The visitors were restricted to four scoring opportunities and Thomas Sorensen, Reid's great Dane of a goalkeeper, saved them all comfortably.

Sunderland's only chance came with seven minutes remaining, the former Gunner Niall Quinn heading down a Gavin McCann cross and prompting Alex Manninger's one save of the match. They were, nevertheless, applauded off the pitch as loudly as Uriah Rennie was applauded on to it - thanks, of course, to the red card he flourished up the road on Tyneside the previous Saturday.

Arsene Wenger saw red in the metaphorical sense more than once during his afternoon on Wearside, where Arsenal have not won a League match for 33 years. "It was a very physical game and it is my job to protect my players," he said in explaining his touchline remonstrations.

The Arsenal manager, however, chose not to publicly chastise the referee for failing to punish the over-zealous challenges that left Petit with knee ligament damage and Bergkamp with an injured back. Both players have been withdrawn from midweek international duty and are likely to be missing from the home line-up when Manchester United visit Highbury on Sunday.

With Davor Suker engaged in European Championship qualifying action for Croatia against Malta, and with Tony Adams, Marc Overmars and Nigel Winterburn all on the injured list, Arsenal's arsenal is in sudden danger of running short for the early-season Premiership summit meeting.

Sunderland (4-5-1): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Bould (Helmer, 54), Gray; Summerbee, Rae, Ball, Schwarz, Oster (McCann, h-t); Phillips (Quinn, 78). Substitutes not used: Marriott (gk), Holloway.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Upson, Silvinho; Henry, Vieira, Petit (Ljungberg, 40), Parlour; Kanu, Bergkamp (Boa Morte, h-t). Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Grimandi, Luzhny.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Sunderland: Ball, Schwarz, Makin. Arsenal: Vieira, Upson, Dixon.

Man of the match: Rae.

Attendance: 41,680.