Fabregas keeps his head to spoil the Sunderland party

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The Independent Online

The first week of October is early for a club of Arsenal's strength and stature to have their title challenge questioned. But that is what will be happening in north London this morning after a second consecutive failure to overcome Premier League opponents expected to be beaten, comfortably or otherwise. A 1-1 draw at Sunderland does not have the shock factor of the previous Saturday's defeat at home to Hull City, but it does carry an element of disappointment.

"Frustrating" said a frustrated Arsène Wenger. It could have been worse. A chess game of a football match had entered the third minute of injury time when Bacary Sagna won a corner off George McCartney. As the Sunderland substitute Grant Leadbitter had given the Wearsiders a surprise lead four minutes earlier, this was Arsenal's last chance.

Robin van Persie raced out to take the corner and delivered the ball into a packed six-yard box. Sunderland's keeper Craig Gordon came for the cross but did not get there, neither did Anton Ferdinand nor any of the bigger defenders. But Cesc Fabregas, all 5ft 10in of him, got there with his head and Arsenal had a point.

"A good point or a bad point? I don't know," Wenger said. "It's been a bit frustrating for me but we showed character to come back."

Trouncing Porto in midweek did not matter so much after all and the Arsenal manager said: "Sometimes after a Champions' League game you are very sharp or a little flat. Today we were flat. We did have all the possession and the initiative but they defended with spirit. A fair result? It is a result."

Roy Keane was predictably sceptical of the idea that Sunderland were overly conservative. The Black Cats' manager fielded Dwight Yorke in front of his back four and invited Arsenal to break them down. "If I'd different players available we might have been a bit more attack-minded but we played [Manchester] United here last year with a 4-4-2. We got beat 4-0. It could have been seven. Today we had a good mentality, good shape and good discipline. I thought we also played some good stuff on top of that."

Sunderland lost all eight games against the top four last season, so this was a sign of progress. It took Arsenal 37 minutes to really threaten their hosts. Theo Walcott's cross-shot forced Gordon into a scrambled save. Other than that, though, with Steed Malbranque influential on the right and Ferdinand and Danny Collins resolute centrally, Arsenal weaved and dodged but to no great effect.

But Walcott was immediately more prominent after half-time and in the 56th minute he was involved in the moment that arguably shaped the game most. When he got to the byline his centre was speared in by Van Persie but the linesman ruled – unconvincingly – that the ball had gone out as Walcott crossed.

"If managers had two video appeals per game, I'd have used one then," Wenger said. He did not blame the failure to win on that. But that feeling could change.

Walcott was soon replaced by a lively Nicklas Bendtner. The Dane's 82nd-minute chip to Van Persie was the pass of the match but Gordon stood up and blocked. That save and the disallowed goal meant that Sunderland could maintain their stance as the end approached.

On came Leadbitter for Yorke. There was a flick from Andy Reid, followed by one from Kieran Richardson and Leadbitter was on the ball 25 yards out. Holding off Alex Song, he drilled a fine shot in off the crossbar. He celebrated by touching the turf and all Sunderland knew why.

A local boy, Leadbitter saw his father's ashes spread here during the summer.

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