Struggle continues as Arsenal demonstrate quality gap

Posted by Colin Randall

When news filtered through that Durham County Cricket Club had beaten Derbyshire to give them a great chance of winning the championship, I felt a flicker of hope for Sunderland against Arsenal.

Looking at the starting line-up for Sunderland's home game again Arsenal, I noticed the names of only five players to whom the crack of willow on leather would mean much. It is a fans' thing, the relationship between supporting the county side in cricket and Sunderland, as the county side (as it was until local government reorganisation), in football.

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But the flicker did its job, if only briefly, as Craig Gardner maintained his reputation as a fine taker of penalties to put Sunderland level at 1-1. The logic of Arsenal's overall, overwhelming supremacy was to prevail, leading to a 3-1 victory to maintain their generally impressive start to the season.

The defeat certainly reflected the realities of a game in which first-half dominance might well have produced a lead as commanding as the one (4-1) that I described Sunderland having at half-time in the equivalent fixture in the last season in which the top flight championship went to Wearside. That was in 1935-36 and it may well be a lot more than another 77 or 78 years before Sunderland again challenge for such honours.

Even so, it is interesting to reflect on the pair of decisions by Martin Atkinson that arguably handed the game to Arsenal.

Salut! Sunderland's regular pre-match interview with an opposing supporter featured, last week, Walter Broeckx, a Belgian supporter of Arsenal who contributes articles on refereeing howlers to the popular Untold Arsenal fan site. This series began in partisan fashion, as a campaign for referees to give more decisions Arsenal's way, but has evolved into an essentially dispassionate review of who profits and who loses from the demonstrably wrong decisions made by Premier League officials.

So I tackled Broeckx, a qualified referee, about the denial of what would have been another equalising goal, to make the score 2-2, in the 70th minute. Bacary Sagna, the last Arsenal defender, fouled Jozy Altidore on the edge of the penalty box. The ball ran on and Altidore forced it over the line. What, in natural justice, should the result of the incident have been? It is difficult to imagine anyone other than an Arsenal supporter having much difficulty in saying the goal should have stood. Atkinson, rightly booed off at the end, gave the free kick and showed only yellow to Sagna.

My Belgian Gooner admitted to being "mystified" but felt Atkinson may have blown for the foul before the ball crossed the line and, less plausibly, speculated that he decided against red for Sagna because both players had been "fouling each other". He acknowledged that despite Arsenal's earlier wastefulness in front of goal, the episode was "a bad moment from Atkinson and very unlucky for Sunderland at that moment in the game".

Almost inevitably, Arsenal scored a third. The game was dead.

No Sunderland fan is likely to dispute that the better team won. But having fought their way back into the game, looking at one point early in the second half like going on to take the lead, Sunderland deserved rather better than to have their revival wrecked by a crass decision, or -- if you include the failure to dismiss Sagna -- couple of decisions.

A 3-1 defeat was more or less what I had expected. Arsenal's expensive new signing Mesut Ozil may have been upstaged by Aaron Ramsey's two goals, but let us not forget that his pass set up the simplest of tap-ins for Olivier Giroud to open the scoring in only the 11th minute. I'd say Ozil is destined for a fine first season in the Premier League and also that his team will finish, at the very least, in the top four. Arsene Wenger normally wouldn't have seen the incident that should have made the score 2-2, but even he felt obliged to confess afterwards that Arsenal "got lucky". He also remains the manager I most wish ran my own team's affairs, so I wish Arsenal well on that basis alone.

As for Sunderland, nothing too much would normally be read into such a disappointing result. The sort of team Paolo Di Canio was able to field, if you leave aside the inexplicable absence of Cabral from any part of his matchday plans, was always going to play second fiddle to the quality and pace of Wenger's side.

Unfortunately for PDC, it is a third defeat in four and West Bromwich Albion's late equaliser at Fulham leaves his team bottom of the Premier League. The fixtures list for the first half of the season -- with home games against Liverpool, both Manchesters, Newcastle, Chelsea and Tottenham to come -- does not offer great hope of rising above that position unless the away form suddenly becomes 100 per cent better than was displayed at Crystal Palace before the break for internationals.

And where must that run of decent performances on the road start? At the Hawthorns next Saturday, where the side Sunderland replaced in 20th position on Saturday are the hosts. Without wishing to step up the pressure on PDC and his band of hard-working but, on the evidence so far, limited players, West Brom away already takes on the guise of Sunderland's first cup final of the season.

PDC could do worse in the coming days than to march his foreign legion across Durham to the Riverside cricket ground at Chester-le-Street and draw inspiration from what the whole county, including its small Newcastle-supporting pockets, trust will be the routine defeat of Nottinghamshire in another, possibly conclusive stride towards claiming the LV County Championship title.

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