Sunderland meet Arsenal flair with heart and soul - but no goal

Posted by Colin Randall

Carl Jenkinson receives his marching orders during the 1-0 win over SunderlandGettyImagesCarl Jenkinson receives his marching orders during the 1-0 win over Sunderland

On the approaches to the Stadium of Light, cheerful volunteers were pressing little folded leaflets into people's hands. They looked football-related and indeed, for a while, were before getting to the real point, plugging services at the Bethesda Free Church.

- Mangan: Sagna, Szczesny star as Gunners scrap

Life, like football, would be ruined without rules, the text declared. And within two minutes of Sunderland v Arsenal kicking off, Lee Cattermole was to receive yet another reminder of the implications of this statement. Returning from a long, frustrating injury, he failed to reach the second minute before picking up his customary booking.

Eighty-eight minutes plus stoppage time is simply too long for a player of Cattermole's nature to survive comfortably on a yellow card. By the time he was replaced at the start of the second half, the ineffectual state to which prudence had reduced his game had played its part in helping Arsenal to a lead.

The game duly ended Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal, Santi Cazorla's impressive shot from the left confirming the Gunners' first-half dominance, an advantage greatly assisted by the loss of combative strength in Sunderland's midfield.

A vastly improved second half should have ended with Sunderland at least level. Steven Fletcher, lethal for much of the season so far, missed three good chances. The first, when set up by the excellent Stephane Sessegnon, was from a spot close to where the Arsenal goal had been scored but he shot wide. The second was a one-on-one with Wojciech Szczesny, after a fortunate rebound, which the keeper blocked well but should not have been able to get near. And the third, a strong header, produced a wonderful save.

As Simon Mignolet raced forward to join outfield players for Sunderland's last-second corner, the feeling was that the rally would fall just short of bringing the salvation the spirited home performance deserved. So it was to be. Full of heart and passion, Martin O'Neill's team were defied by superb defending, the lack of a killer punch on the day and just a shade of bad luck.

O'Neill will be upbeat about the effort but knows too well that Sunderland create problems for themselves. Arsenal went down to 10 men for the last half-hour after Carl Jenkinson's third bookable offence drew a second card from Anthony Taylor. Not for the first time at this stadium, an Arsene Wenger side had shown itself capable of applying muscle as well as brains to a match.

But in truth, Cattermole's enforced lack of tenacity - such an important part of his game - meant Sunderland played as if having only 10 men in the first half. The midfield was run ragged by Arsenal's slicker, pacier approach. Possession was surrendered far too easily.

The two vaunted England stars, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, were relatively quiet. Walcott showed flashes of attacking menace and also temper, hitting a post but also being booked before being hauled off by Wenger. Wilshere, slowed by a hard but fair challenge from Titus Bramble in the first half, went off injured in the second.

The honours were shared by two Premier League imports. Sessegnon hardly put a foot wrong in a rousing second-half display of skill and invention that merited a goal or an assist. But Mikel Arteta, a cool and outstanding figure in the midfield, never put a foot wrong from start to finish and was, for me, the man of the match.

At the end, Sunderland were applauded from the field. The home fans recognised that being beaten does not always mean being disgraced. On another day, Fletcher would have scored twice (though it is fair to say Arsenal had chances on the break to increase their lead). This was not the right game for such bold experiments as a 4-4-2 system but the striker may yet be given the chance to start alongside the new signing, Danny Graham.

Like me, Arsenal had begun their journey to the Stadium of Light in London.

I suspect they covered the 270 or so miles rather more quickly instead of slumming it on the A1 and having fear struck into their hearts by the intermittent overhead signs warning of severe weather ahead. Indeed, there was sunshine over the West Stand roof as the game started and even the softest southerner would have found the conditions agreeable.

The bad weather undoubtedly lies ahead, if on a smaller scale than being experienced across the Atlantic. But I hope and - if the folk from the Bethseda Free Church will permit this inappropriate thought - pray the outlook for Sunderland, too, remains bright.

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