Sunderland 1-2 Arsenal: Superb Fightback

You know, I just had a feeling about this game. Even at the very instant that Sunderland had scored, I turned to our Preview by Numbers man John and said "Don't worry, there's plenty of time."

Plenty of time for a legend to do his thing, that is.

But, we get ahead of ourselves. Arsenal fielded exactly the same XI that so imperiously swept Blackburn Rovers aside, while Sunderland countered with their strongest possible lineup as well despite the 120 minutes they played on Wednesday.

The Gunners dominated the early proceedings, if by "dominated" one means "had more possession but looked about as likely to score as Leisure Suit Larry". Chances were few and far between - Robin van Persie drew a routine save out of Simon Mignolet with a slow daisy-cutter of a shot, while Wojceich Szczesny was almost caught out by a weird inwardly-swerving corner kick.

The Pole also had to be alert and decisive to clear one out after some miscommunication on a high ball with Laurent Koscielny, then RVP saw a shot flash just wide of the far post.

Yes, folks...that was the whole first half-hour in those last two paragraphs. Good lord, this was dull fare.

The 38th minute saw a bit of controversy though, and Sunderland will feel a bit hard done by. However, rookie referee Neil Swarbick (despite some wonky moments in the second half) had a pretty good game I thought, and I think he got this right. A ball was played into the Arsenal area towards Per Mertesacker, who slipped as it was coming in. The ball bounced up and hit Mertesacker's outstretched hand, but Swarbick motioned to play on.

Here's the thing, though. The rule is "intentional handling", and despite Mertesacker's hand being in what would be termed an unnatural position, it was there as he was trying to regain his balance. He was not attempting to get any kind of unfair advantage, and there was no Sunderland player within 7 postal codes of the big German. Had there been one or two there and a scoring chance arguably lost from the contact, then I imagine Swarbick would have whistled for the spot-kick...and he'd be correct to do so. However, in this case, the man in the middle got this one spot-on.

The match dragged on to halftime, after about 2.4 seconds of time added on. I suspect Swarbick was as dreadfully bored as the rest of us. The first few minutes after the restart were also fairly turgid, though worryingly Sunderland were starting to keep the ball for extended periods at a time. The passing was just not coming off for the away side, and there was just no movement off the ball. Uncharacteristically, Mikael Arteta had a poor game and was largely consigned to the periphery. Theo Walcott's internal randomizer was set to "Jekyll", and he was the cul-de-sac where countless Arsenal attacks went to die. The frustration was palpable all around.

Worse than that, Sunderland took advantage and could so easily have taken the lead. A corner was cleared out by the Arsenal defense, but the ball came out to Craig Gardner in prime shooting position. The effort was low and in the corner, but somehow Szczesny was able to pick it out through the forest of bodies in front of him, and did remarkably well to tip it around the post. Gardner had another effort just a minute later, but Szczesny repelled him again with a brilliant save.

Remember those two saves when we talk about the three points won today.

The Gunners were up against it a bit, and in response the Boss took off the somewhat-subdued Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and put on Thierry Henry in his stead. The change looked to lift the team a bit, but then disaster struck in the 70th minute.

It all came out of nothing, too. A Sunderland attack had fizzled out, and Mertesacker was in possession. I imagine he was about to pass it back to Szczesny or cycle it out to one of the fullbacks. However, as he was running, he came up short and crumpled to the ground. In retrospect, I'm not entirely surprised - Mertesacker looked like he was limping badly earlier on in the game. Sunderland's young winger James McClean took advantage, rampaging into the Arsenal area and hammering a shot past the surprised Szczesny and into the far corner. Szczesny's angle wasn't great, but I hardly think he could be faulted in the circumstances.

One other thing, while we're on the subject. There will be bleating in many corners that what Sunderland did was somehow unsporting, but let me ask you this: With the knowledge that Chelsea were 2-0 down to Everton, if one of their lot went down injured leaving RVP a chance to put one away, how would you react if instead it was played out to touch? It all happened so fast, would have been a dereliction of duty on McClean's part if he didn't take that in and shoot on goal.

One question, though: Did Sunderland's ground staff harvest the potatoes from the pitch half an hour before kickoff, or did they hold a rave there the night before? The state of that playing surface was absolutely shocking, and as a top-flight club they should be embarrassed with themselves.

Aaron Ramsey came on for the injured Mertesacker, with Alex Song dropping back into defense. Immediately, the men in the awful blue shirts looked far more dangerous. Clearly, the rest looked like it did wonders for the Welshman. Within three minutes, Arsenal had equalized. Arteta had a shot from outside the area blocked, but the rebound fortuitously came out to Ramsey in a central location. He too had a lash from outside the area, but this time it found its way through the bodies in front, off the far post, off the near post, and in. Mignolet never had a chance, which is perfectly fine with me.

So, Arsenal were back on level terms, but more importantly they had recovered from an awful twist of fate to get themselves back into the game. I remember the not-too-distant past when the Gunners would crumble when things like this went against them. This time, they redoubled their efforts and started to attack Sunderland's net in earnest. Walcott finally was withdrawn for Andrei Arshavin, who went out on the left - switching wings with Henry.

The little Russian gave us a preview of things to come with a nice cross to RVP, that saw the Dutchman tamely place his header into Mignolet's breadbasket. A few ticks of the clock later though, Arsenal had their winner. Arshavin was given far too much time and space to send in his cross, and AA23 duly obliged with a peach of a ball into the area. Henry got goalside of his marker, Michael Turner, and side-footed the ball past Mignolet and into the net.

There were still four minutes of injury time to go, which ended up becoming more like 5 1/2. However, Sunderland had the look of a defeated team, and other than one corner kick, never seriously threatened Szczesny's goal. Everton's lead held, so Arsenal find themselves back in fourth place thanks to Chelsea's generosity. They may not necessarily be there entirely on merit, but I'm also not complaining too much, either.

It only gets more difficult from here, though. This was a good start, but Milan away, the FA Cup rematch with the same opponent and venue and then the North London Derby will be as testing a run as this team has had in recent memory. Right now, if you told me the team could only win one of them, believe it or not I'd take the FA Cup game. This team needs a trophy, and I don't really care where we get it at this point. We'll see how it shakes out, though.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7 (Ramsey 8), Sagna 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Henry 8), Song 7, Rosicky 8, Arteta 6, Walcott 6 (Arshavin 8), van Persie 6

Man of the Match: There will be a large contingent of those who say it's Thierry Henry, and I wouldn't argue with that view. However, I have to throw my hat into the ring for Tomas Rosicky, who covered every blade of grass on both sides of the ball today. We may have seen the last of Rosicky as any kind of goal-scorer, but he's been revitalized in recent weeks and had a storming game today.