Arsenal administered an effortless execution of Sunderland but Arsène Wenger's team were the ones left feeling like victims. Sunderland's physicality built up as the game progressed and culminated in a studs-up lunge from Dan Smith on Abou Diaby which left the Arsenal midfielder with an ankle injury that is set to rule him out of the European Cup final.
"It was a bad kick and an unneeded one," said Wenger, as Diaby sustained another ankle injury, something he suffered earlier in the season. "It's one thing to lose the player but the other thing is that I believe the spirit of the way he has been kicked -and [Cesc] Fabregas a few times - is not acceptable.
"When you play against people who do not try to play, it is very difficult to take. It's sad - if an accident happens when both go for the ball, it's OK - I think the referee [Dermot Gallagher] and the press as well, cannot accept that. The only one that did not see the red card is the referee."
The Arsenal players were angry at Smith, who was sent off on his debut against Cheltenham in September's FA Cup win over them. Thierry Henry, who started and shone, complained that all Sunderland's players wanted in the second half was to kick them.
Sunderland's caretaker manager, Kevin Ball, defended his men. "Let them say what they want to say," he said, before backing Smith, who was booked yesterday. "Dan Smith is not a dirty player. He's gone for the ball. It wasn't malicious."
That stretched credibility. Smith's challenge was petulant and perhaps born out of frustration. Sunderland now cannot even reach the record-low 19 points they aimed for. The sooner a change at the club takes place, the better.
Niall Quinn's consortium met the club's chairman, Bob Murray, yesterday for takeover talks and the Irishman was greeted like a saviour on arrival at the ground. A couple of hours later, the smiles were wiped by Arsenal despite an unexceptional display including a worryingly weak Sol Campbell showing. To balance that, one encouraging piece of news for Arsenal and England, defensively, was Ashley Cole's return for the last 25 minutes.
Their season remains both excitingly and precariously poised. Arsenal must feel as though they are playing snakes and ladders. Having climbed all the way to the Champions' League final, they are one step away from glory, but should they be stung by Barcelona they will probably be left with nothing, so their pursuit of fourth should remain relentless; this match should set the tone for their remaining two.
Questions remain over who should feature where and when in those games, particularly so with Diaby's predicament. Fabregas was playing wide on the right and looked so prone to drifting in-field that Arsenal's midfield occasionally seemed narrow and congested. Gaël Clichy gave another solid display, so Arsenal need not worry about rushing Cole's return.
Their future opponents will not show Sunderland's tactical naïvety. The Black Cats were punished by the 28th-minute goal that started a late first-half spell that blew them away. Henry's free-kick, from close to the left touchline, was flung towards the near post and reached the edge of the six-yard box. Danny Collins, distracted by the lurking Diaby, headed the ball into his own net.
Henry was again the supplier for the second, picking out Fabregas's run with a well-delayed low pass, and the midfielder delicately lofted the ball beyond Kelvin Davis's grasp.
Soon it was three as Henry deservedly got on the scoresheet. Again it was from a left-sided free-kick, close to the edge of the 18-yard box. The angle seemed too tight but Henry expertly lifted the ball the over the wall and squeezed it inside the near post.
Sunderland then rallied aggressively. Another Campbell misjudgement forced Jens Lehmann into a sharp save at point-blank range, as Anthony Le Tallec skipped away and crossed for the lively Kevin Kyle, who should have headed in.
In the face of aggression the Gunners were generally a picture of professionalism. They eased off but kept their shape in the face of adversity. That allowed Wenger the luxury of withdrawing Henry with nearly 20 minutes left. If Henry keeps this up, the top of the ladder is in sight for Arsenal.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Davis; Nosworthy, Breen, D Collins, McCartney; Stead (Le Tallec, 33), Murphy (Smith, 63), Miller (Leadbitter, 80), Whitehead; Brown, Kyle Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Caldwell.
Arsenal: Lehmann; Eboué, Campbell, Touré, Clichy; Fabregas, Diaby, Song, Pires (Cole, 65); Adebayor (Van Persie, 65), Henry (Bergkamp, 72). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Djourou.
Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).Reuse content