Arsenal 4 Sunderland 1 match report: Olivier Giroud returns to inspire the Gunners in Mesut Ozil’s absence
Frenchman, who has missed the last two matches, scores twice as Arsenal run riot in the first half
On the day that a statue of Dennis Bergkamp was unveiled outside the stadium in the great man’s presence, Arsenal produced an opening 45 minutes he must have watched with pride. The only caveats were that the quality could not be sustained and that the opposition were not one of the greats of European football, such as they faced in midweek, but a Sunderland side looking in that opening period as feeble and disjointed as under Paolo Di Canio at the start of the season.
Three goals behind at the interval – two glorious team efforts and one gift – the Wearsiders finally livened up afterwards, drawing the second half as a tiny consolation prize to take into the Capital One Cup final next Sunday. After Birmingham City and Wigan won Wembley finals in recent years before being relegated, the question to be asked this week will be whether Sunderland might emulate them. That does presume, however, that like Wigan they beat Manchester City next weekend, which on yesterday’s evidence is highly improbable.
As for Arsenal, the disappointment of Chelsea’s late goal earlier in the day was quickly forgotten as they came out at their smoothest and best, to stay a single point behind the leaders. There was no Mesut Özil, whose star has so unexpectedly dimmed since shining on his debut at Sunderland in September. The official reason was a dead leg, though the greater surprise was that he had been left on for 82 minutes of Wednesday’s defeat by Bayern Munich after his woeful penalty miss.
In Özil’s absence Santi Cazorla took the central position to good effect just behind the main striker – a restored Olivier Giroud – and Jack Wilshere was able to push forward repeatedly, linking with Tomas Rosicky on one flank and Lukas Podolski on the other. Occasionally in that sumptuous first half there was a back-heel too many instead of a shot, but that could be forgiven.
“We have had a demanding week physically and mentally but we did the job in the first half and scored two great Arsenal goals,” Arsene Wenger said. His opposite number, Gus Poyet could only admit: “We were poor in many things. Everything I had in mind for next week is gone in 90 minutes.”
Poyet’s side arrived in more confident mood than might have been expected from a team 18th in the table playing away to title contenders, not least because of a run of six away games without defeat since November. He wanted them to go forward, or at least push Arsenal’s attacking players backwards, which proved to be wishful thinking from the fifth minute onwards.
For the first goal, Wilshere was involved twice in a fine move, cutting in from the right to find Rosicky, then setting up Giroud for his 15th goal of the season. At that early point the official statistics credited the home side with 93 per cent of possession, which however sceptical you are about such things seemed about right. The figure did not diminish by much over the next few minutes, and Sunderland were so unreliable when they did have the ball that trouble was never far away.
The frequently underestimated Bacary Sagna easily dispossessed Fabio Borini, allowing Wilshere to set up Podolski for a fierce 25 yarder pushed away for a corner by the former Arsenal goalkeeper Vito Mannone; and on the half-hour Santiago Vergini, deputising for the suspended Wes Brown, played a horribly casual back-pass in the vague direction of Mannone, giving the ‘keeper no chance of reaching it before Giroud, who scored from an angle.
The third goal, just before half-time, was one of the team efforts of the season, the ball moving from player to player with sufficient speed to bewilder spectators both in the stands and out on the pitch in yellow Sunderland shirts. Inevitably, Cazorla and Wilshere were involved, as well as Giroud, before Rosicky, who had started it all, supplied the coup de grâce.
The sum of Sunderland’s first-half product was one smart break led by Liam Bridcutt and Jozy Altidore, ending with a low cross-shot from Marcos Alonso that Wojciech Szczesny held. Poyet removed Adam Johnson and Altidore at the interval, sending on another Arsenal old boy in Sebastian Larsson as well as Emanuele Giaccherini, who did at least offer some offensive threat and create a goal between them. Szczesny was forced to save from Borini, at an angle, and Ki Sung-Yueng, close in, and was beaten near the end after punching out Larsson’s free-kick to Giaccherini, who scored on the half-volley from 25 yards.
In between times, however, the defence collapsed again, leaving Laurent Koscielny unmarked at a corner conceded when the hapless Vergini almost sliced into his own net. Any report from a City scout looking ahead to Wembley would surely read: “cannot be that bad again”.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny (Flamini, 62), Monreal (Jenkinson, h-t); Arteta, Wilshere; Rosicky (Gnabry, 73), Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Bardsley, Vergini, O’Shea, Alonso; Bridcutt; Johnson (Larsson, h-t), Ki (Scocco, 73), Colback, Borini; Altidore (Giacherini, h-t).
Referee: Andre Marriner.
Man of the match: Wilshere (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10
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