Van Persie leads massacre of the innocents

Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1
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The Independent Online

According to Thierry Henry, there is no limit to Robin van Persie's potential. "He can achieve whatever he wants," Arsenal's captain said after scoring twice himself in Saturday's romp against Sunderland. But wait a minute. The Dutchman is no callow teenager, he's 22, the age when promise should be coming to fruition.

With 20 minutes left to play Van Persie was replaced by Dennis Bergkamp, who notched up his 300th appearance for the Gunners. Van Persie had played well enough to touch off Henry as man of the match, but Arsenal are not confident that he can go the full 90 minutes.

"He's getting stronger all the time," said their manager, Arsène Wenger, "and today he was a good partner for Thierry. He watches him, listens to him, learns from him."

Arsenal may be in transition but in Van Persie and Henry, starting together for the first time this season, Wenger may have found his ideal front pairing but proof of it will have to come against sterner opposition than a weakened Sunderland were able to provide.

For Wenger the visit of Sunderland could hardly have been more opportune. They travelled to Highbury stuck at the bottom of the Premiership and having recently announced pre-tax losses of £8.8m for last year. After last week's hiding by Portsmouth the Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy made six changes, packing his team with kids and defenders. They had leaked goals so alarmingly in their last three games that it cost Kelvin Davies his place in goal. His replacement, the 18-year-old England youth international Ben Alnwick one of three players making their Premiership debuts, could not be faulted for any of the goals and Daryl Murphy, a recruit from Waterford who was also given his first start, coped well with the rampaging runs of Lauren.

Sunderland's policy was clear from the start. With a centre-half, Gary Breen, deployed in front of the back four they held a high line, pushing up whenever Arsenal entered their half and inviting the home team to come at them. Against a side with Arsenal's pace it was a risky policy, and after Sunderland had survived a surge by Jose Antonio Reyes from which he shot inches wide, Arsenal went ahead in the 12th minute. The only surprise was the manner of its making. Arsenal rarely employ the long forward pass but Sol Campbell's aim was perfect when he split Alan Stubbs and Steven Caldwell from 40 yards to find Van Persie, who collected the ball on his chest before sending a low shot left-footed between Alnwick and the near post.

"A long ball down the middle shouldn't beat us," McCarthy said. "But in the first half we didn't play. I was prepared for Arsenal to outplay us but not outfight us. That was disappointing. Some hard words were said at half-time and at least we then gave a better account of ourselves."

Before McCarthy could get at his men Sunderland had conceded a second goal, nine minutes before the interval, scored by Henry who was in imperious form. Van Persie's clever flick released Lauren, who sped down the touchline and crossed for the unmarked Henry to slide in at the far post.

The introduction of two newcomers for the second half only marginally raised the level of Sunderland's resistance and Arsenal dropped down a gear, playing exhibition football. Van Persie and Henry both wasted chances by seeking to score artistic goals instead of settling for simplicity before the Dutchman twice came close, firing a drive into the side netting and then being foiled by Alnwick's fine diving save.

Soon, Van Persie turned provider, finding Henry with a chip that the Frenchman took high on his chest before launching himself into a bicycle kick, only to be denied the goal of the season by the left-hand upright.

Van Persie departed to a standing ovation to be replaced by Bergkamp and with him went some of Arsenal's impetus; then, out of nowhere Sunderland scored when Caldwell headed down Murphy's corner and Stubbs prodded the ball through Lehmann's legs.

"We became too comfortable," Wenger said. "We don't always take opportunities to kill teams off. We eased off today and could have been punished."

After Alnwick had denied Bergkamp a goal on his 300th League appearance, Francesc Fabregas's terrific through ball found Henry, who sidestepped Caldwell before firing home his second.

As Henry turned away in celebration Caldwell was still prone on the turf trying to comprehend what had happened.

Goals: Van Persie (12) 1-0; Henry (36) 2-0; Stubbs (75) 2-1; Henry (82) 3-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2) Lehmann; Lauren, Touré,

Campbell, Clichy; Pires, Gilberto, Fabregas, Reyes (Eboue, 66); Van Persie (Bergkamp, 71), Henry. Substitutes not used: Flamini, Senderos, Almunia (gk).

Sunderland (4-1-4-1) Alnwick; Nosworthy (Miller, 62), Stubbs, Caldwell, Collins; Breen; Stead (Le Tallec, h-t), Whitehead, Robinson, Murphy; Gray (Elliot, h-t). Substitutes not used: Davis (gk), Welsh.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Man of the match: Van Persie.

Attendance: 32,210.

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