Plus ça change, and all that. This was not supposed to be a sombre anniversary for Arsenal, but a fresh start. On the equivalent afternoon last year, a gruesome injury to Eduardo and a late Birmingham penalty had left William Gallas on his posterior and his team on its knees. But the week had begun with an emotional comeback from the mutilated striker, and here, making his debut, was one of the most sumptuous talents in the world game in Andrey Arshavin.
Arsenal began seven points off fourth; a win would take them within seven points of second. Even without Eduardo, who had strained a hamstring, this was surely the day they could begin to turn things round. In the end, however, they succeeded only in turning their own fans, booed lustily as they slunk away from a third consecutive impasse.
In fairness, Arsene Wenger was quite gracious about the way Sunderland entrenched after the interval. Perhaps he felt that this latest stalemate had amply vindicated his chosen solution. Everyone has been telling the Arsenal manager he needs more molars, more grinders. Instead he has broken the club transfer record for yet another incisor, and during the hour he was granted - on his first start since November - Arshavin did indeed look as though he can make a difference here.
He nearly scored twice within 15 minutes, thanks to a generous welcome to the greatest league in world football from Andy Reid. First the portly Sunderland midfielder picked out Arshavin with a ghastly cross-field pass, from which he was allowed to proceed unmolested to the edge of the area, his right-foot shot swaying only narrowly wide. Then he cut past Reid on the edge of the box and, this time with his left, had Marton Fulop at full stretch to tip wide.
In the meantime, Denilson had put Robin Van Persie through, only for his delicate chip to drift past the top corner, but these meek moments proved untypical of the visitors. A midweek injury to Cisse had prompted Ricky Sbragia to pack his midfield, but it was only after an open first half that he settled for one of those beauty-and-the-beast encounters becoming so wearily familiar here. Indeed, it was just as well for Arsenal that Manuel Almunia had his wits about him in the first period - notably in stifling stinging drives from Dean Whitehead and, after a bullocking break out of his pen, Anton Ferdinand.
With a point tangibly in their grasp, Sunderland then pulled up the portcullis. They had already cleared the ball off the line, just before the interval, but their coherence and commitment caused growing despair in their hosts. On the few occasions when Arsenal prised an opening, the only sign of panic was in their own finishing: Carlos Vela, Arshavin’s replacement, blazed across the face of the goal after bringing the ball down deftly, and contrived to miss his next opportunity altogether. Gallas finally sent the stadium into a fever pitch of exasperation by savaging one, last chance in added time.
“We had a lot of luck on our side, but you need that when you come to a place like this,” Sbragia said. “We had the same game plan as at Manchester United but maybe Arsenal weren’t clinical enough. When they were on target, I thought Marton Fulop was excellent.”
The understated Sunderland manager’s predecessor, Roy Keane, has been explaining his abrupt departure in the autumn with the incredulous disclosure that he had been asked to put a smile on the players’ faces. If that is what they wanted, he scoffed, Sunderland should have hired Roy Chubby Brown. But while this was all work, and no play, his former charges left London with grim smiles of satisfaction.
“Managers have different ideas,” Sbragia shrugged. “I wanted discipline, enthusiasm, I wanted the players to come in and gel together. We’ve moved on. We’re hard to beat now. We’re absolutely delighted to come here and get a point.”
For Wenger, however, it was no laughing matter. “I believe they tried to frustrate us, and in the end they managed to do it,” he said. “You could see us become a bit more nervous in front of goal. Maybe we wanted to force the situation too much. Overall, it’s very difficult when teams come here and defend. But we have to learn to deal with that. We are six points behind Aston Villa, with a long way to go. We can come back. But it will be tight.”
Referee: Alan Wiley
Man of the match: Ferdinand
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content