Arsenal's title challenge put out of joint by Bent

Sunderland 1 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Football

What is important, Sir Alex Ferguson always says, is less the result than the reaction to the result. So while Arsenal will be deflated by another defeat after an international break, they can redeem themselves by beating Chelsea at the Emirates next week and so reducing the gap between them and the leaders to a manageable five points with a game in hand. And while Sunderland will be justifiably buoyed by a diligent, intelligent performance, in which the Albanian midfielder Lorik Cana was again superb, it means little unless they can produce something similar at Wigan next week.

"I've said to them that if we don't perform at Wigan I'll kick all of their arses," said Steve Bruce, who is yet to oversee back-to-back league wins at Sunderland. His four games against the "big four" have yielded seven points, but, as Arsène Wenger said, "you judge a team against a team of their level, when they have to make the game."

Sunderland's only two really poor displays this season came against Burnley and Birmingham, while they were outmuscled at Stoke, leading inevitably to the fear that they are better at stopping the opposition playing than at playing themselves. Bruce, though, insists the issue is one of mentality rather than tactics or personnel.

After grumbling about the non-award of a late penalty for a supposed foul by Fraizer Campbell on Carlos Vela – probably significantly none of the Arsenal players appealed – and the disruption caused by the World Cup qualifiers, Wenger right) accepted Sunderland had "defended well, with heart and desire", while noting his team perhaps "didn't realise the difficulty of the game".

Cana, bristling but composed in front of the back four, was key to that defensive excellence, Paulo da Silva was outstanding at centre-back and the teenage midfielder Jordan Henderson grows more confident by the week, but the greatest positive for Sunderland came from Darren Bent.

After three Premier League games without a goal, the suspicion was that Bent's early-season form was waning, but his reaction to the derision that followed his England appearance in Qatar was impressive. It wasn't just that he scored his ninth goal of the season, swept in from close range after his wayward header had cannoned back across the goalmouth off Campbell, but the way he led the line, pulling wide, dragging defenders out of position, always offering an option and helping Sunderland clear their lines.

Bent tends to be regarded as little more than a finisher – an erratic one at that – but he offers rather more, and almost created a late second for Campbell after holding the ball up, cutting infield and then finding Bolo Zenden in a crossing position with an astute pass out to the left. "He creates chances for the team, but if you create them for him he'll score them," Zenden said. "He has pace, strength and he is a complete striker. I'd rather have him with me than against me.

"It's a mark of his confidence that he missed a penalty at Tottenham, had a tough time against Brazil but he comes back against Arsenal and scores a goal. He is a good guy as well – you sometimes get lazy strikers who want to score tap-ins but he always works hard for the team. He's vital for us."

Wenger denied it, but Arsenal, perhaps, will reflect on just how vital Robin van Persie, missing with an ankle injury, is to them. Somehow, before next Sunday, he has to work out an alternative and prompt a positive reaction. An 11-point gap, even with a game in hand, would seem terminal.

Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Fulop; Bardsley, Mensah (Ferdinand, 82), Da Silva, McCartney; Cana, Henderson; Malbranque (Campbell, 66), Richardson, Reid (Zenden, 78); Bent. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Healy, Murphy, Nosworthy.

Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Traoré; Song; Nasri, Fabregas, Ramsey (Arshavin, 60), Rosicky (Walcott, 72); Eduardo (Vela, 72). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Denilson, Silvestre, Eboué.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Sunderland Bardsley, Richardson; Arsenal Traoré.

Man of the match: Cana.

Attendance: 44,918.