Brilliant Bendtner starts to turn the tide

Arsenal 2 Sunderland 0: Much-maligned striker perceived by the fans as lazy carries Arsenal to victory in first step towards silencing his critics
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The Independent Football

The existence of a Facebook page entitled "Nicklas Bendtner is Rubbish" is a sorry indictment of the mentality of certain football fans, but it also demonstrates the strong opinions that Arsenal's young striker is capable of generating.

Wags on the internet joked at the start of the season that Bendtner had changed his shirt number from 26 to 52 to better reflect the number of scoring chances he takes for every goal he scores. He was booed by Arsenal supporters last season, who perceived him as lazy. When Emmanuel Adebayor was sold to Manchester City in the summer, it seemed inevitable that Arsène Wenger would sign another striker, but the Arsenal manager put his faith in Bendtner to come good. The Frenchman kept his nerve in January, despite injuries to Robin van Persie and Eduardo and £30 million at his disposal.

Wenger just repeated the mantra that Bendtner would prove himself, despite having spent the past three months out recovering from a hernia operation. The Arsenal fans like to say "In Arsène we trust", and their devotion is being tested. However against Sunderland yesterday Bendtner, on his third start since returning to the side, scored the crucial goal to set Arsenal on their way.

The Dane also showed signs of greater maturity, working harder, winning balls in the air and holding up play to allow time for his team-mates to join the attack. Maturity has not been Bendtner's strongest suit in recent years. He has worn bright pink boots, wrapped his Aston Martin around a tree, and been photographed coming out of a nightclub with his trousers at half-mast.

Yet Wenger still believes in him, and if he puts in more performances like he did yesterday, he will have a vital role to play for Arsenal during this period when Van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Eduardo are all out injured. Bendtner scored his first Premier League goal since 4 October, thanks to another Arsenal player who knows what it is like to receive the bird from his own fans. Emmanuel Eboué has contested Bendtner for the role of least liked Arsenal player in the past year, but they combined well to put Wenger's side ahead midway through the first half.

Eboué, one of six changes made by Wenger from the side that had lost 2-1 to Porto in midweek, saw plenty of the ball early in the game. His clear enjoyment at getting forward was so infectious it seemed Sunderland had decided it would be uncharitable to try and tackle him.

One of Eboué's adventurous runs set up Arsenal's opening goal. The defender sprinted past Darren Bent and as the defence backed off he carried the danger closer and closer to the opponents' goal before crossing low. Even Bendtner could not miss.

The Dane had come close minutes earlier, hitting the bar with a shot that deflected off George McCartney. Theo Walcott, another player making a timely return from injury, also enjoyed his moments, with the England manager Fabio Capello watching from the stands. He skinned McCartney twice in the opening 15 minutes, but neither time could he find a finish.

Wenger was happy: "Theo is much sharper than he was three weeks ago. He is still lacking a bit of confidence in the final third. But for 60 or 70 minutes he looked dangerous."

A late penalty from Cesc Fabregas, after a shove by Fraizer Campbell on the Arsenal captain, flattered the hosts, who lived dangerously. Manuel Almunia, preferred ahead of midweek fall guy Lukasz Fabianski, had to make a couple of smart saves. The visitors' best chance fell to Kenwyne Jones, who fired wide from 18 yards.

Sunderland had a convincing shout for a penalty turned down, when Mikaël Silvestre tugged at Bent's shirt as the England striker fired a shot at the legs of Almunia. The decision prompted Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, to berate referee Steve Bennett for several minutes at the final whistle. "It was the turning point," said Bruce, whose side have not won in the League since they beat Arsenal in November. "We had three or four glaring chances but couldn't take one."

Attendance: 60,083

Referee: Steve Bennett

Man of the match: Bendtner

Match rating: 5/10