Arsenal earned a point at the Stadium of Light this afternoon against Sunderland as the latest of Darren Bent (again!) equalizers canceled out a fluky early Cesc Fabregas goal. For much of the match, Arsenal played a man down thanks to two yellow cards earned (well, "earned") by Alex Song, but in the end, the Gunners were unable to hold off the final Black Cats onslaught.
Football can be really torturous sometimes, can't it? A team which has held on bravely for 40 minutes down a player, hardly putting a foot wrong the whole time, only to see one flub under pressure vaporize two points in the standings at the very end. Water bottles and couch cushions are thrown in frustration.
The game started out in predictable fashion. Arsenal played their patient possession game while Sunderland, as is their wont against Arsenal at home, looked to immediately close hard on the ball. Half chances came at either end, Andrei Arshavin scooping over the bar and Jordan Henderson missing with a volley from 18 yards.
The scoring opnened after twelve minutes in the most bizarre of fashions. Anton Ferdinand took a touch too many waiting to clear the ball, and Cesc Fabregas got a foot on the clearance, popping it back over a helpless Simon Mignolet and into the net. Ferdinand looked sick; Fabregas smiled as his teammates gathered around.
Following the goal, it was Sunderland who looked in control for much of the remainder of the first half. They had more possession and arguably better scoring chances than did Arsenal. Song had a good header from an Arshavin floated cross that was saved at the near post, but other than that, the Gunners didn't threaten Mignolet's goal often.
At the other end, Manuel Almunia and his defenders faced a succession of crosses and corners, all of which they defended with aplomb, clearnances, punches, and catches/smothers all on order. The most worrying sight for Arsenal supporters came half an hour in when Fabregas was forced to leave the match for Tomas Rosicky after what is reported to be a hamstring problem. He was able to leave the pitch under his own power, so hopefully the change was more precautionary than anything.
Eight minutes later, referee Mike Dowd booked Alex Song for what looked to be a non-incident; perhaps the Cameroonian fussed too much after being called for the foul. Either way, it would prove to be a fateful yellow card. Halftime arrived with the Gunners holding on to their 1-0 lead.
They should have been up 2-0 shortly after the break, Arshavin contriving to scoop an effort over the bar again from five yards out. It would become more difficult soon after, as Alex Song was shown a second yellow, more harsh than the first, and was sent off. Arsenal now faced a tough prospect: defend their goal for forty minutes down a man in a harsh environment against a hungry Sunderland.
For most of the second half, they did just that. Arshavin made way for Denilson after the red card, and the midfield quartet of Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere, and Denilson, all playing very centrally (in general, there was not much width from the wingers today at all), did very well passing their way up the pitch out of danger whenever Sunderland threatened. Marouane Chamakh also did very good work, using his size to provide a direct outlet for Arsenal's besieged defenders.
Dowd's refereeing, wobbly for much of the match, worked in Arsenal's favor. Nasri was tripped in the box, and Rosicky stepped up to take the resulting spot kick. He went for power, inexplicably, and blasted the ball over the bar.
It was the kind of mistake that always seems to open the door for the opposition, and today was no exception. Arsenal continued to fight for the three points, defending like lions for the next ten minutes, into stoppage time. Two minutes into the extras, Denilson was released on a counter and had Rosicky free to his right, but rather than picking out the Czech for an opportunity on goal and precious seconds off the clock, Denilson elected to shoot instead, and Mignolet saved.
Sunderland renewed their attacks on goal, earning a corner as the last of four extra minutes dwindled away. The ball was cleared as far as about twenty-five yards away, Bolo Zenden chasing it up the pitch away from Manuel Almunia's goal, the 95th minute arrived, but Dowd did not call time. One last Sunderland pass was floated in towards goal, Gael Clichy's clearance deflecting off a helpless Laurent Koscielny right into the loving feet of Darren Bent, who did not miss. 1-1. Game. Cue Tchaikovsky's "Funeral March" for the death of an away victory.
It is all too easy to criticize individuals after a match, but Wenger has said countless times that Arsenal win and lose as a team. It would be uncharitable to blame Clichy for the goal. Koscielny is not at fault, and Almunia is not at fault. Numerous chances were squandered by either side, and both goals in the match were the result primarily of flukey play.
There are a number of positives to take away from today's match for Arsenal; in what has proven to be one of the toughest away matches for the Gunners, a 1-1 would have been seen as a good result for them before the match. Until the last fifteen seconds, the defense of Clichy, Sebastien Squillaci, Koscielny, and Bacary Sagna were outstanding, and Manuel Almunia was soild. The tackles were assured, the positioning on crosses and corners good. No goals were conceded, although Sunderland had their chances. Rosicky, in particular, looked very crisp with his passing, only putting one astray all match.
Playing in a hostile environment shorthanded for basically an entire half, during which Arsenal were arguably the better side with improved possession, bodes well. This is the type of match that the team may have thrown away last season, and while today feels a bit like a loss, it could have been far worse. Had Rosicky made his penalty or any one of twenty other opportunities on either side gone in, it could have been ecstasy or agony.
Football is a collection of moments over ninety minutes, not fifteen seconds, and on the balance today, a draw is perhaps a fair result. The team can learn so much from this type of loss, and hopefully this will make them stronger. Once more is known about the injury to Fabregas, the picture will be more clear. Song will miss the Carling Cup match against Tottenham, a match he was likely to rest for anyhow, so it could be far worse. Only time will tell if Arsenal learned today.