This is a bad time for fortune to be deserting Arsenal. Seven days after losing the Carling Cup to a farcical defensive mix-up and just before leaving for Barcelona, they were denied a Premier League victory by an assistant referee's error and were therefore left three points behind Manchester United at the top of the table. "I'm too disgusted to speak about it," Arsène Wenger said of the crucial decision.
Credit, let it be said straightaway, to Sunderland for a resolute performance, in which the often wayward Titus Bramble stood firmest. Unfortunately, however, on the day that Fifa finally admitted the need for technological help for referees, a key decision was given the wrong way so that justice was not seen to be done. In the 88th minute Nicklas Bendtner sent Andrey Arshavin clear of the defence to round the goalkeeper and score what appeared to be a winning goal. Alas, the assistant Andy Garratt, ruled him offside, even though replays confirmed that Anton Ferdinand was playing the Russian onside.
It was just as well that those re-runs were confined to the press box, since the more hot-headed home fans were already heading towards boiling point, angered by a combination of refereeing decisions, some misfortune and, it must be said, patches of distinctly scrappy play from their team. Only for one period in the first half and two in the second did Arsenal manage sufficient fluency and threaten goals. They were denied in those spells by admirably dogged resistance, an occasionally inspired goalkeeper and, when substitute Marouane Chamakh headed from four yards out, the crossbar.
Missing Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott and with Cesc Fabregas sitting this one out in the hope of being fit for the Nou Camp, Arsenal used Jack Wilshere further forward than usual, in the captain's normal role. What that gained in offensive potential tended to be lost further back, where Denilson and Abou Diaby lacked creative spark.
Bendtner, the scorer of a hat-trick against Leyton Orient in midweek, came closer than anyone to a goal in the first half, being sent clear at an angle by Wilshere's delightful chip to shoot fiercely, Simon Mignolet doing well to divert the ball for a corner. That ended Arsenal's best spell of the half.
If that little period of pressure sent the home supporters off for their half-time beverage in better heart, their frustration grew as the second period wore on. Chamakh was brought on little more than quarter of an hour after the interval, supplying Arshavin for a shot that Mignolet again saved well, but not until the last 20 minutes did Sunderland look likely to submit.
Mignolet then brought off his third excellent stop, beating out Samir Nasri's curling free-kick; Chamakh could only head Wilshere's cross against the bar; and after Arshavin's piece of misfortune, there was still time for Bendtner to head Tomas Rosicky's cross at the goalkeeper.
It would have been too much to bear had Sunderland stolen a first victory away to Arsenal since 1983, though there were opportunities. Wojciech Szczesny, apparently over his Wembley moment, kept out Stéphane Sessègnon, Jordan Henderson and the substitute Danny Welbeck.
A point was satisfactory for Sunderland's manager, Steve Bruce, who said: "There were a few hairy moments in the last 10 or 15 minutes but we deserved something." He predicted "a few twists and turns" in the title chase, which is one of the few consolations for Wenger, who also disclosed that Wilshere had picked up an ankle problem. Like Fabregas he is by no means certain to be fit for Barcelona. "It is the kind of game you want to win 1-0," Wenger said of yesterday's match; though that applies equally to Tuesday.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Man of the match: Bramble