Sanchez brace sees Arsenal beat Sunderland 2-0 – but thousands of empty Emirates seats are real talking point
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Arsenal beat already-relegated Sunderland 2-0 with a brace from Alexis Sanchez tonight.
But the real talking point was the thousands of empty seats on show at the Emirates - as fans frustrated with the prospect of their team failing to finish in the top four for the first time in 21 years boycotted the game in protest.
The result sees Arsenal needing to win against Everton in their final league game on Sunday – and hope Liverpool lose to Middlesbrough at Anfield.
Arsenal should have been buoyed by their show of undoubted character in standing firm in Stoke City’s cauldron on Saturday, digging deep to show reserves of mental toughness hitherto unseen in 2017.
The 4-1 humiliation of their old foes from the Potteries should have been the signal for another late charge into the top four and the promised land of the Champions League.
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However, Liverpool’s convincing 4-0 defeat of a lacklustre West Ham at the London Stadium saw the annual Arsenal charge falter, perhaps terminally.
As one West Ham wag said on Twitter, if Arsenal needed to rely on the Irons to help them achieve their Champions League ambitions then they didn’t deserve to qualify anyway.
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After the abysmal league form Wenger’s men showed from the end of January until just before East - culminating in that utterly embarrassing rout at Crystal Palace on April 10 – it was hard not to disagree.
The fact there were at least 10,000 empty seats here tonight underpinned the point that Arsenal’s league season is over.
It wasn’t so much the promised land as Paradise Lost – although it was difficult to tell whether the absentees were actively boycotting the match or simply displaying apathy.
On eight minutes Nacho Monreal nearly fired the Gunners ahead, shooting past the promising Black Cat keeper Jordan Pickford but beyond the post. .
But with Sunderland looking as if they’d rather be on holidays in wherever footballers take their holidays these days Arsenal tried to look sprightly, with Granit Xhaka at the heart of midfield prompting.
N’Dong nearly fired Sunderland ahead as he broke down the right channel on the 34 minutes only for Cech to block at his near post, for a corner that came to nothing, which saw as Arsenal break come to nothing. It was that sort of game.
N’Dong, the 22-year-old promising former Lorient player at least looked interested in trying to influence the game, as did former Spur Jermaine Defoe who shot across Cech three minutes later.
It’s a shame Defoe’s team have been relegated as his goalscoring efforts on the pitch deserved better.
As does Defore’s exemplary – and heartwarming - behaviour off it in acting as a surrogate cheerleader for brave Wearside youngster Bradley Lowery who is fighting a battle against cancer. His genuine acts of kindness have not only helped a dignified family through heartache but have shown some footballers are actually really decent human beings.
As the clock ticked down Bellerin fired a powerful low near post shot at Pickford’s goal which rippled the side netting, leaving home fans frustrated – the ones that were here at least.
Given the large number of empty seats and low key atmosphere it was hugely symbolic the half time guest of honour was John Hawley. For those struggling to comprehend fifth place in the shiny Premier League, this correspondent – as a wide-eyed child watched Hawley at Highbury.
Despite being a lovely man to say he was arguably the worst centre forward to play for the club over the last four decades is an understatement.
To paraphrase a Kennedy line for those who may accuse Olivier Giroud of being cumbersome – Giroud: You’re no Hawley.
The second half started with Sunderland – who had nothing to play for bar their pride - on the attack. Seb Larsson who has proved to be a Premier League player after leaving Highbury – if not an Arsenal player appeared to be clipped by Monreal on the right flank, as referee East showed the wing-back a yellow card. East clearly had the taste for it raising cards as he soon awarded one to Ozil for an innocuous challenge in the centre of the park.
Indeed given the German’s disappearance from influencing matches from January to April perhaps it should have been a welcome back card.
However on 74 minutes perhaps it was a congratulatory card Ozil should have received as he crossed perfectly from the byline for Sanchez to slot home form close range to make it 1-0. Sanchez then netted again on 82 minutes after Pickford could only parry to make it 2-0.
But as the rain fell the game petered out into a damp squib – which is exactly what Arsenal’s league season has become.
Cech, Gibbs (Iwobi), Sanchez, Ramsey (Welbeck), Ozil, Giroud (Walcott), Holding, Monreal, Mustafi, Bellerin, Xhaka
Pickford, Jones, Oviedo, Cattermole Gooch), Larsson, Borini, O’Shea, N’Dong (Gibson), Defoe, Manquillo (Januzaj), Kone
Referee: Roger East