Sunderland 1 Arsenal 1
5.30pm is the most moronic kick off time there has ever been. Whichever slick haired, booted and suited executive came up with that needs a bloody good slap. If you`re at home, it makes the day drag and doesn`t give you enough time to get anything done during the day and likewise ruins any social plans you have for the evening. For a distant away match, it`s even worse. My alarm still awoke me at 06.30, so I can hardly be thankful to ESPN for a lie in to compensate, whilst the last train from Sunderland to King`s Cross leaves at 19.27. Those of us on the road; don`t see our homes again until 3am. All in all, a thoroughly horrible idea dreamed up by the type of Gordon Gekko moron who spends too long hovering coke off of stripper`s tits and inviting compliments on his Patrick Cox loafers to engage the empathy gene. So a hearty fry up was required prior to boarding the coach to the North East as heavy traffic enervated our journey. However, the trip was somewhat lightened by Terry`s phallic confectionary; Father Kev`s confession and Postman Pete`s unnecessary intellectualisation of children`s car games. (Who chooses Quentin Crisp for a game of 20 questions? I mean, apart from me obviously?)
Arsenal began with an unchanged side, which surprised me greatly. I didn`t expect to see Wilshere in the starting line up and in the interest of fresh legs; I felt at least Rosicky and or Denilson should have started. Indeed Arsenal looked heavy legged in the opening minutes. Sunderland put Danny Welbeck on Gael Clichy and looked to work the channels with long balls. The Gunners were not greatly troubled; though I struggle to recall a game we were so ineffectual in possession. But after being on the receiving end of the pressure for the opening 13 minutes, the Gunners took a fluke lead. Arsenal cleared another Sunderland attack into the Sunderland half. Anton Ferdinand waited for the ball to roll back as he prepared to launch a clearance. Fabregas, who created his second goal on Wednesday night by closing down a Braga defender, advanced forwards to block Ferdinand`s clearance and the ball hit Fabregas` right foot and freakishly looped over Mignolet, who had been caught off his line, from 40 yards. A great many Arsenal fans missed the goal such was the serendipity of it, but we incredulously celebrated anyway. In the meantime, as Fabregas wheeled away, he appeared to be flexing his hamstring. Eventually, the skipper had to go off, for the fifth time in 13 months he departed a game early due to an injury to his right hamstring. That has to be a little worrying.
The Gunners remained somewhat pinned back and should have grabbed themselves a quick fire equaliser as David Meyler`s corner saw Nedum Onuoha completely unmarked from eight yards but he somehow contrived to head over the bar. The away side briefly managed to gain some kind of attacking impetus, Arshavin`s cross found Alex Song at the back post, but the Cameroonian`s header was smothered by Mignolet on the post. Had Song gone across the keeper, it might have been one of the more undeserved two goal leads I can recall for Arsenal. Song and Arshavin combined again, though this time in reverse, as Song`s drag back and pass found the conniving run of Arshavin, but his early shot was straight at Mignolet. Sunderland`s territorial domination in the meantime was manifesting itself in speculative long range efforts. The Black Cats balls into the channels were repelled wonderfully by the ravenous Koscielny and the calm, authoritative Squillaci. But Arsenal`s inability to hold possession was having a detrimental effect, as Wilshere was booked for a mistimed tackle, whilst a couple of niggly Song fouls earned him a yellow card. But half time thankfully arrived with Arsenal leading against the run of play.
Arsenal looked to be a different beast in the second half, Nasri got hold of the ball in more central areas whilst Chamakh proved to be a quite outstanding foil upfront, making himself available and controlling every pass that came his way. Nasri clipped a wonderful ball over the top of Kieran Richardson where Chamakh had peeled to the right, he sent in a low cross which Arshavin met, but got well under and spooned over the bar under pressure from Ferdinand. The same trio contrived to carve out a further chance for Arsenal to slay the game. Arshavin fired the ball into Nasri, again operating more centrally, Nasri hit a first time pass into the path of Chamakh, who was clean through albeit wide from goal, but Chamakh dithered and allowed Mignolet to close out the angle. But just as the yellows were getting out of the rut and into a groove, they found themselves reduced to ten. Malbranque knocked the ball past Song and rather threw himself at Song. That said, Song was not cute enough to move out of the way and invited a fussy referee to send him off. I thought the card was soft but I`m not going to rage about it, it wasn`t an absolute scandal. I just hope when Phil Dowd next referees at the Grove he is as stringent with our spoiling opponents. What was irritating was Dowd`s rather selective interpretation of rules, exactly the same incident would happen twice and be treated entirely different both times. Arsenal brought Denilson on for Arshavin and ironically, it allowed them to control the midfield. With Denilson`s precise tackling and Rosicky`s ability to carry the ball forward, we did not look unduly disadvantaged.
Koscielny and Squillaci continued to frustrate a Mackems side that looked all out of ideas. Though one piece of Sunderland ingenuity briefly threatened to open Arsenal up, when Meyler and Welbeck worked a short corner, before Meyler played a low cross to Darren Bent, who swung his shot wide. Another Henderson corner slid unctuously off of Denilson`s shoulder and goalwards until Clichy headed off the line. But the zip came out of the atmosphere at one of the few grounds left in England that actually creates it, Sunderland were floundering. Rosicky and Nasri worked the ball into the penalty area and El Muhammady swiped Nasri`s leg from behind him and Arsenal had a penalty with fourteen minutes remaining. With Cesc, van Persie and Arshavin all off the pitch, Rosicky stepped up but smashed his effort horribly over the bar. Suddenly, the boisterousness came back into the voices of the home fans. Denilson`s under hit back pass put hearts in mouths in the South Stand, but Almunia was out swiftly to make a decisive tackle. The Spaniard continued his fine work when a Zenden cross saw Koscielny and Squillaci not commandeering the overhead flight path for the first time, Bent nodded towards goal but Almunia made a fantastic reaction stop.
But as nails were chewed and hearts palpitated; our worst fears were realised when Zenden lofted a hopeful ball to the edge of the box, Bramble won the flick on which set off a scramble in the area, Koscielny took a swing at a clearance, before Clichy`s weak effort cannoned off of Squillaci into the path of Darren Bent to equalise with the last kick of the game. It was such a sickener, the gut punch of two points lost at a time when we looked to be in complete control. Objectively, a draw was a fair result, but through the prism of club bias, I felt our players who had put in a Herculean effort with ten men, deserved better. Koscielny, Squillaci and Almunia did not deserve that. Had the Mackems levelled with ten minutes left, we might have looked upon it as a point hard earned in difficult circumstances. As it happened, we are left to lament the fact that we were about 5 seconds away from lauding a champions performance of grit. That said, there are many positives. The defence looked more secure than I ever remember it being last season. Rosicky, Walcott, Nasri, Almunia and Wilshere all look better players than they did last season. We have felt the fruits of a last minute equaliser this season and, this sort of thing is statistically going to happen to you at least once a season- it`ll happen to Chelsea this season too. Come May, we will look back on more last minute goals to celebrate than to commiserate. Ultimately, our biggest sin was not to kill the game off in the second half when we had the opportunities to do so. That puts great pressure on the defence, they made one collective error in the second half, but the forwards were guilty three or four times at the other end, which puts the defence under pressure. Time will tell how costly these two points will be, but we are now due some last minute glory of our own. Stamford Bridge would be a nice place to reap it.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGAS(c) (7.Rosicky `27), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (15.Denilson `55), 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 11.Vela, 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs.