Sunderland 1 Arsenal 2
So began a quite monumental period of travelling in pursuit of the Arsenal. 2,870 miles in seven days to be precise for yours truly. We met bleary eyed at King`s Cross shortly after 7.15am Saturday, me looking expectantly at a six clutch of premium lagers and tucking into an outstandingly greasy breakfast snack in order to soak up the onslaught. Young Tim arrived to inform us that he`d errantly left his match ticket at University in Manchester. Swift phone calls were made to redress the error. (Fortunately, one of our number had a spare).
A smooth journey through a snow carpeted England and a few liquid breakfasts later, we found ourselves in a very chilly Sunderland shortly before midday. What with it being opening time and all, we decided that the only English thing to do at this point (despite two of our cohort being Swedish) was to find a pub. The Albion was our haunt of choice to settle in and watch the petty bitch fest that was Manchester United v Liverpool. With the Merseysiders slipping up and an off colour Chelsea travelling to Everton, you felt the way you always feel with Arsenal nowadays. The margin for error is so small that every game is make or break.
On a quagmire of a pitch, Martin O`Neill selected the same XI that battled through 120 minutes at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday night. Something of a theme of O`Neill`s otherwise excellent management is that he likes to operate with a small cadre of players. New signings Sotiris Kyrgiakos and, unfortunately, Wayne Bridge were on the bench. Arsenal again started with Tomas Rosicky ahead of Aaron Ramsey and Bacary Sagna came in for Coquelin at right back. In truth, we ought to have just stayed in the pub for the first 45 minutes. Sunderland looked to sit back and absorb pressure and hit Arsenal on the break. But Arsenal`s attacking was neither zippy nor committed enough to warrant being counter attacked. In short, the first half stunk.
A Vermaelen header from van Persie`s right wing corner was dealt with by Mignolet. Whilst van Persie`s surge forward was married with a good run by Walcott on the right. Van Persie found him but Walcott fired just past the far post. Song`s forward pass somehow squirmed between O`Shea and Turner to find a slightly off balance van Persie, but his right foot shot was comfortably saved. Sunderland might have had a penalty when Colback`s cross saw Mertesacker lose his footing on the bumpy surface, the ball bounced up and onto his out-turned palms. Had we not been awarded one in a similar situation I`d be slightly aggrieved. I also wasn`t the first time the big German would run into trouble with the playing surface.
The beginning of the second half captivated only slightly more- but that is to damn it with faint praise. A Sunderland corner was cleared to the edge of the box and onto the lethal left foot of Craig Gardner, he kept a low bouncing volley on target, but Szczesny was equal to it and up smartly to smother the rebound. Arsenal were still struggling to make an impression with van Persie heavily marked and Chamberlain labouring to little effect. Walcott has trouble controlling the ball on the lush surface of the Emirates, so you can well imagine he was struggling to effect proceedings on the Stadium of Light cabbage patch.
Henry came on for Chamberlain and moved to a 4-4-2; the realisation being that Henry doesn`t quite have the legs for the wing anymore. But his finishing and his movement are still as adept as ever, so it made sense to leave him on the shoulder of the last defender. But with twenty minutes remaining, the Gunners were a goal down in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Sagna nudged the ball back to Per Mertesacker; the German stepped over the ball then suddenly crumpled to the floor in severe distress. This left James McLean to race onto the loose ball unopposed and hit a fulminating low shot across Szczesny and into the bottom corner. At times like that, it`s natural that you want somebody to blame. But instantaneously you knew there was nobody to blame, it was pure misfortune at the worst possible time. Mertesacker was carried off and Aaron Ramsey came on.
The Welshman`s impact was instant. Arteta had an effort blocked on the edge of the penalty area. The ricochet arrived at the feet of Ramsey and his first time shot clipped the post, rolled along the goal line before kissing the other post on its way over the line. With Sunderland having played 120 draining minutes three days earlier, the Gunners had the scent of blood in their nostrils. Arshavin came on for Walcott, as the away side pressed for a crucial victory. O`Neill didn`t make his first substitution until the 87th minute.
Arshavin`s impact was obvious too, first he danced between Bardsley and Larsson to send in a teasing left wing cross which van Persie glanced goalwards, but Mignolet had his angles correct. But with the board for injury time erect, Arsenal made their big play. Again Arshavin received the ball on the left; he dropped a shoulder faced by O`Shea and Bardsley and, with minimum back lift, allowed the ball to run to his right foot before lifting in an inviting cross. As if in slow motion, I could see Henry arc towards it, intent simply on touching it. He made the connection and the next second I was covered in a sea of braying bodies.
Just three weeks ago a beleaguered Arsene Wenger stood on the touchline, his ears ringing to the strains of "you don`t know what you`re doing" with reference to one of his substitutions. Historically it`s not been the strongest part of his game. But his three switches all had a palpable effect on the result and on another 15 minute comeback that turned 0 points into 3. We made our way back to the train station, trying our best to conceal our delight, the Henry chant filling most of the repertoire. It was a fairytale finish. It`s fair to say I was sceptical about Henry`s return, but with two winning goals (as well as any less tangible effects he has had on the squad) he`s paid back whatever we put into his account.
Far from the posturing figure that began to give the impression he`d become slightly poisonous to team spirit by the 2006-07 season, this Henry has seemed more relaxed, viewed his role with great perspective and wisdom. His popularity amongst the players has been obvious. It`s a shame he has to go back. Obviously he`s an infinitely preferable option from the bench compared with Chamakh and Park- both of whom were left at home for this trip, but both of whom we will now have to reply on with the full knowledge that the departing son is the better. Whilst one would prefer us not to keep falling behind in games, the comebacks show a semblance of character that we will need as we approach the home straight. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER (16.Rasmey `71), 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 7.ROSICKY, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin `87), 15.CHAMBERLAIN (12.Henry `66), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 21.Fabianski, 28.Gibbs, 30.Benayoun, 39.Coquelin.