Mid-September may seem a little early for defining points in a Premier League season that is always a long haul, but with a little over quarter of an hour remaining at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, Arsenal showed exactly why they can again be written off as serious title contenders.
That may sound harsh on a side who coped admirably with a numerical disadvantage for almost half this compelling contest to maintain an unbeaten start to a campaign in which they have already plundered 20 goals. It may seem equally incongruous that the point at which their hopes of ending the hegemony of Chelsea and Manchester United should be written off arrived as they prepared to take a late penalty that would have given them an unassailable two-goal lead at a venue from which only United have returned with three points in the last 10 months.
The problem, and a rather major one at that, was that no one wanted to take the penalty. The lack of killer instinct that will again see them come up short in the title stakes this season was laid bare. With regular takers either injured or already substituted, there followed an uncomfortable hiatus as the Arsenal players looked around at each other to take responsibility for the spot-kick in the wake of Ahmed Elmohamady's foul on Samir Nasri. "When they got the penalty, no one really wanted to take it," said Steed Malbranque, the Sunderland midfielder. "Normally in big teams you'd have a few leaders and someone there to kill off the match."
Finally, up stepped Tomas Rosicky, on for the hamstrung Cesc Fabregas. For that he deserves credit, but none further is due to the substitute for what subsequently came to pass. The penalty was skied high and wide and Sunderland went on to equalise in the fifth minute of stoppage time after a minimum of four to be played had been shown.
Presumably the extra 15 seconds that allowed Darren Bent to score against the side he supported as a boy – the additional time that so upset the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, that he had to fend off suggestions he had confronted the fourth official Martin Atkinson over the timekeeping – was due to the time it took to fish Rosicky's awful spot-kick from the stunned Arsenal supporters behind Simon Mignolet's goal.
"I didn't expect Rosicky to take it, I expected Nasri to take it," Wenger conceded afterwards. "It was the deciding moment of the game." Not just the game, more like Arsenal's entire season. Having been reduced to 10 men shortly after the interval following Alex Song's departure for a second needless yellow card, a point, even given its circumstances, is not to be sniffed at, considering the stiff proposition Sunderland have become on home soil.
But that is just two points from their last three visits to a venue where United and Chelsea both secured comfortable victories on their most recent visits. Things looked different when Fabregas sent Anton Ferdinand's clearance back with interest to register a freak goal from 40 yards, a significant contribution before his enforced early exit. However, Song's departure saw a momentum shift the visitors were unable to halt when Bent buried his sixth goal this season for club and country from close range as Arsenal's luck ran out at the death.
"I thought we were going to hold on, so it's two points dropped," admitted the Arsenal midfielder Denilson. Despite the spurned opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea at the summit of the Premier League, even for less than 24 hours, and in so doing strike a psychological blow, Denilson added: "We're in a strong position and we have a trophy in us this season. Sunderland ask you a lot of questions and you can't say we won't win the title just because of one result. We can still win the Premier League this season."
Steve Bruce does not necessarily concur. "Whether they're going to knock Chelsea or Manchester United off their perch is debatable," the Sunderland manager said. "At the moment Chelsea look unbeatable."
Jordan Henderson again stood out in midfield for the hosts, who gave further indication with their fightback that they are ready to fulfil their aim of regularly breaking into the Premier League's top 10. "A couple of years ago we might have crumbled after their freak goal but it shows our character that we came back," Bent insisted. "It was probably the best performance during my time here."
Sunderland 4-5-1: Mignolet; Onuoha (Zenden, 77), Bramble, Ferdinand, Richardson; Henderson, Elmohamady, Riveros (Gyan, 64), Malbranque (Reid, 86), Welbeck; Bent Substitutes not used Carson (gk), Bardsley, Colback, Da Silva
Booked Riveros, Malbranque, Welbeck.
Arsenal 4-3-3 Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Clichy; Song, Fabregas (Rosicky, 29), Wilshere; Nasri, Chamakh, Arshavin (Denilson, 58) Substitutes not used Fabianski (gk), Gibbs, Djourou, Eboué, Vela
Booked Wilshere. Sent off Song (55).
Referee P Dowd (Staffs). Attendance 38,950.
Man of the match Henderson.
Possession Sunderland 48% Arsenal 52%.
Shots on target Sunderland 5 Arsenal 7.
Match rating 8/10.