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Paul Chronnell at Emirates Stadium
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Premier League: Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0
Life after Robin van Persie? It is going to be a difficult season at the Emirates if this opening 90 minutes is anything to go by, with the former captain’s absence keenly felt as Arsenal huffed and puffed and ultimately failed to break down a resolute Sunderland.
There is no need for instant panic or knee-jerk reactions, but in a game in which the Gunners dominated possession and had numerous presentable chances, the failure to take any of them merely confirmed what everybody had thought when you sell the player who had contributed 37 goals last season.
Arsene Wenger fielded all three of his new signings, and substitute Olivier Giroud missed a glorious late chance to be an instant hero, but there was a lack of spark in the final third and it showed.
Santi Cazorla enjoyed an excellent debut, and Lukas Podolski will only get sharper, but replacing the goals and latent threat of Van Persie will take some doing. On this evidence, Arsenal fans had better learn to be patient.
After all that had happened at the club in the past few days, the first team sheet of the season was eagerly-awaited as fans wondered just how Wenger’s side would line up ‘post-RVP’.
As expected Podolski started as the main striker with Cazorla in the hole behind, playing in the centre of an attacking trio that had Theo Walcott and Gervinho on the flanks.
Further back Mikel Arteta, newly installed as vice captain on the eve of the game, played alongside Abou Diaby in the 4-2-3-1 formation, with Alex Song’s omission suggesting that his move to Barcelona is a near certainty.
At the back new club captain Thomas Vermaelen was partnered by Per Mertesacker with Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson the full-backs in front of keeper Wojciech Szczesny.
It was the Polish keeper who was the busiest early on, maintaining parity with a fine low save after James McClean had sprung the offside trap and probably should have scored.
Given how much the Arsenal supporters have suffered in the last few days, the reaction to losing a goal that early would certainly have been interesting.
As it was, the Gunners started to control the game and create chances, with Cazorla warming the hands of Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet with a fizzing 25-yarder that the Belgian did well to tip away.
The Spaniard Cazorlawas busy and looks an exciting signing, but Arsenal really should have taken the lead on 18 minutes when Gervinho skipped down the left flank and cut the ball back into the box, only for Podolski and Cazorla to get in each other’s way and the latter struck his shot wide. At moments like that you realise that these players have never played together before, or in the Premier League.
But the creative play was starting to click. Diaby forced another good save from Mignolet and then, just before the break, Walcott crossed from the right and Podolski looked sure to open his Arsenal account from close range, only for Craig Gardner’s last-ditch tackle to deny him.
The players went in at the break with Arsenal feeling a little disappointed that they had not taken the lead, but mildly encouraged by the way the team appeared to be gelling together.
But in the second half they did need to raise the tempo to try and break the deadlock. Cazorla, the summer arrival from Malaga, was doing his best with a busy, skilful display that suggests he will prove a telling addition to Arsenal’s armoury.
Sunderland seemed content to remain camped in their half with men behind the ball, and it became an all too familiar war of attrition for the Emirates faithful.
Cazorla had a shot charged down, Walcott hit the side-netting when he should have crossed and Podolski whistled a free-kick over the bar as the pressure mounted.
However, it was to be the German’s last input as, clearly still struggling for full match-fitness, he was replaced by a third debutant, Olivier Giroud.
The Frenchman took up the lead attacker role, while Wenger also sent on Aaron Ramsey for Diaby and then one of the Emirates’ forgotten men, Andrey Arshavin, for a tiring Walcott.
With nine minutes to go, the Gunners created the perfect chance to win the game. Cazorla was again at the heart of it, sliding a brilliant ball through for Giroud who, with only Mignolet to beat, sliced the ball horribly wide.
The Emirates crowd didn’t quite know how to react. You can’t berate a player 20 minutes into his debut too much, but it was an appalling miss.
And of course, it was a chance that a former Arsenal striker would never have missed, as he may well exhibit for Manchester United on Monday night.
Everybody was trying, but Arsenal missed Van Persie in this 90 minutes like everybody knew they would. It will take some time for that feeling to go away.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Diaby (Ramsey, 69), Arteta, Cazorla, Walcott (Arshavin, 76), Gervinho, Podolski (Giroud, 63).
Subs not used: Mannone, Andre Santos, Djourou, Coquelin.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, O’Shea, Richardson, Larsson, Colback, Cattermole, McClean, Sessegnon (Saha, 63), Campbell (Elmohamady, 69).
Subs not used: Westwood, Wickham, Kilgallon, Meyler, Bramble.
Referee: Chris Foy