Arsenal needed a real captain’s performance from Robin van Persie to squeeze past Sunderland yesterday afternoon. The Dutchman had used his programme notes yesterday afternoon to reject speculation linking him with a move away from Arsenal. A support base jaded by hearing various players do the same, before immediately jumping in the nearest taxi to Heathrow, might be forgiven for feeling cynical about Robin’s declaration. Good thing then, that his on the pitch display backed his words up beautifully. He was magnificent.
And, it has to be said, so were Arsenal, for the first twenty minutes at least. Buoyed by Arsenal’s fastest ever Premier League goal on 27 seconds created by Gervinho, scored (natch) by van Persie on his “chocolate leg”, Arsenal tore into the visitors. Gervinho fired over and van Persie curled just wide. Before that, Robin had come agonisingly close to a goal of the season contender. On the right hand side of the box, he let Arteta’s pass run across him, dragging it back and spinning onto it in a blur of motion, his right foot chip was exquisite and left Mignolet stranded. But it bounced off the post and spun to safety. Gervinho came close to a second goal but his header was cleared from the goal line.
Arsenal, at this stage, were a wonderful blur of triangles, perpetual motion leaving Sunderland dazed, confused but, as long as the second goal didn’t come, not out of it. So it was no surprise that, from Sunderland’s first shot of the match, they drew level. In fairness, it wasn’t like we hadn’t been warned either. As Sunderland began to grow into the match, Szczesny took on Sessegnon in a foot race to a ball played down our right. The big Pole lost, but, as an equalising goal seemed certain, Alex Song raced back to clear the danger. Then, Arteta inexplicably threw his arm up as he jumped for a high ball. A clear handball and a chance for Seb Larsson to show us the skills we’re missing out on from about thirty yards. It was a chance he took with both hands, or his right foot. Szczesny has been beaten by some spectacular strikes already this season- reminiscent of our first season out of Highbury- but I think this one may just have been the best. He didn’t have a chance.
Rocked by the equaliser, Arsenal finished the half ridiculously grateful to Szczesny for keeping the scores level. Sessegnon got in down our left again, his cross for Cattermole, three yards out, was about as perfect as it gets but, somehow, Szczesny got across his goal to block the header. Steve Bruce called it the turning point of the match, if it was, it might just be the turning point of our spluttering season so far. There was still time, before the half came to a close, for Colback to volley just over from close range. Bearing in mind the boos that greeted the half time whistle, you can only imagine the reaction had Sunderland taken either of their very presentable chances.
But they didn’t. And, once the match restarted, Arsenal set about getting back on the front foot, dominating possession- to the tune of 72-28% at one stage, but really struggling to create anything gilt edged. Jenkinson was getting in down the right and firing in crosses that, if he played for another team, may well have seen him rack up a couple of assists. Dos Santos came on early in the second half to replace the perma crock Gibbs (I wonder if he has his own personal treatment bay) and added some composure and drive to proceedings. But still we weren’t getting anywhere. The minutes ticked by. Van Persie got in down the left but Mignolet wasn’t fooled by the near post effort. Arshavin arrived for Gervinho, who’d faded dramatically after a bright start. And, actually, the Russian made a real difference with his willingness to get on the ball and taken people on. With Rosicky also enjoying one of his best games in recent memories, we now had two players on the pitch willing to run at defenders, taking them on.
But all it seemed to be getting us was a succession of free kicks on the egde of the box, wasted by a succession of players capable of better, Arteta, Walcott two of the guilty parties. Arshavin joined van Persie in the “What a goal that would have been stakes” as he dribbled through four players in the blink of an eye, well, a couple of blinks, on the edge of the box. His shot was poked just wide and it seemed to me that it just wasn’t going to our day. For much of the second half, I felt like I was a teenager again, visting my mother in hospital and not really wanting to look, but being compelled to because, well, she’s my mother. I didn’t honestly believe the goal would come, despite our territorial dominance. Particularly when Arsene’s final throw of the dice amounted to Benayoun replacing the tireless Rosicky. What is the point of that? I wondered.
Well, as it turns out, the point of Benayoun’s arrival was so he could get on the ball and pass, with 8 minutes left, to van Persie, who was to the right, and just outside, of the penalty area. The Sunderland player who rather cynically just took him out as he went to turn had, I think, already been booked, but Howard Webb- in a surprisingly lenient mood apart from his ridiculous booking of Koscielny- resisted temptation. No matter. After a succession of wasted free kicks, Sunderland must have been fairly confident of surviving this one. I know I didn’t feel confident, at least until Sky showed a close up of a very concentrated Robin. Something about the look on his face said this one might be different.
He stepped up and struck the most beautiful free kick up, over the wall, arcing away from Mignolet’s dive in vain and onto the proverbial postage stamp in the corner of the net. A stunning goal and, in the circumstances, ample consolation for the “worldie” the post had denied him earlier. His shirt off celebration said it all. Of course, Arsenal being Arsenal, we conceded an equaliser almost immediately. Only to be rescued by the linesman’s flag. I think, in the circumstances, an equaliser would have been very, very harsh on the Arsenal, but as it is, we move on to Marseille and can do so in the knowledge that, for the first time this season, we’re in the half of the table.
We are staying up!