Uninspired Arsenal beat Sunderland thanks to Robin van Persie double
Arsenal 2 Sunderland 1: Paul Chronnell reports from the Emirates
Robin van Persie’s double strike relieved at least some of the pressure on Arsene Wenger by delivering a third league win of the season for Arsenal, but only after a desperate struggle against Sunderland at the Emirates.
Despite the boost of a goal inside the first minute, Arsenal looked to be heading for a disappointing draw before Van Persie hit his second of the day on 84 minutes to at least move the Gunners into the top half of the Premier League table.
Although far from convincing, the result was undoubtedly of superior significance to Wenger and his side who looked woefully short of confidence for much of this game.
With a trip to Marseille in the Champions League on Wednesday followed by Stoke City’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday, the Gunners can at least start a testing week with a victory under their belts.
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However, Wenger will be only too aware that the level of performance was not sufficient, as his players struggled to find their rhythm against a hard-working but limited Black Cats side.
After a fortnight of introspection since that derby defeat at White Hart Lane, Arsenal could not have wished for a better start as Van Persie scored inside 30 seconds.
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It is a goal Sunderland manager Steve Bruce will not want to see again as Gervinho cut inside from the left flank, found van Persie on the edge of the visitors’ box, and the Dutchman was given time and space to shoot, admittedly on his less-favoured right foot, low past a furious Simon Mignolet.
It was more collective doziness rather than individual error, but it was a nightmare start to 90 minutes at the Emirates, even in these troubling times for Arsenal.
At 29 seconds, it was Arsenal’s fastest ever Premier League goal, and the fastest in the top flight for more than four years.
van Persie could have had a hat-trick inside the opening 15 minutes. A sublime chip – again with his right foot – came back off an upright with Mignolet a bemused spectator and then another 25-yard effort flew just wide.
Sunderland were ragged, as befits a side who have only won once all season, but Arsenal had started brightly, with Theo Walcott and Gervinho either side of Van Persie in attack and Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta given the creative central roles just in front of Alex Song.
There was a scare for the Gunners when Stephane Sessegnon skipped around a hesitant Wojciech Szczesny and perhaps could have done better, with Sunderland claiming Arsenal’s Polish keeper had picked up a backpass in the ensuing scramble. Referee Howard Webb was having none of it.
If that was a warning, Arsenal did not heed it. On the half-hour mark Arteta gave away a needless free-kick with a clumsy aerial challenge and from the resulting set-piece Sebastian Larsson, a former Arsenal youth academy graduate, curled a quite delightful free-kick into Szczesny’s top right-hand corner.
It could have got even worse for the Gunners five minutes later when Carl Jenkinson was inexplicably caught in possession by Sessegnon, whose cross was headed goalwards and saved brilliantly at point-blank range by Szczesny.
Disquiet was growing among the Emirates crowd, and the equaliser seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of Arsene Wenger’s side for whom that dominant first 10 minutes was feeling like a very distant memory.
On the stroke of half-time, Sunderland had another great chance to take the lead, Larsson the creator this time as his cushioned header set up Jack Colback for a close-range volley that flew over Szczesny’s crossbar to send Wenger in at the break with a worried frown.
Those frowns didn’t greatly decrease early in the second half, with the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs limping off to be replaced by Andre Santos after just five minutes, and Arsenal forcing a procession of free-kicks which were all wasted by laughably high attempts from Santos, Arteta and Walcott.
The game also started to get tetchy with Song and Laurent Koscielny both being booked for Arsenal while Wes Brown was shown yellow for a dreadful hack on Walcott just outside of the Sunderland penalty area.
van Persie had a half-chance blocked by Mignolet, after which Wenger decided to introduce Andrey Arshavin from the bench in place of a fading Gervinho, while Sunderland’s hero Larsson also limped off.
Arshavin almost provided instant gratification with a jinking run but it ended with a toe-poke wide of the far post and the increasingly frustrated Arsenal supporters began to sense that a winner was perhaps beyond their uninspired side.
Wenger’s last throw of the dice was to send on Yossi Benayoun in place of the disappointing Rosicky. Arsenal had little more than 10 minutes to turn hoots of despair into something more memorable.
In the end it was van Persie who struck the decisive blow. The captain himself was fouled some 25 yards out by Brown, and this time decided to take the set-piece into his own hands.
Quite why he hadn’t done that all game was the thought on most people’s minds when he stepped up to curl a left-footed shot beyond Mignolet’s desperate dive.
The Gunners captain ripped off his shirt in delight – for which he was booked – but you could hardly blame him. Arsenal had found a victory from a most dispiriting display and can now enter another critical stage of the season with the belief that better times are around the corner.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs (Santos, 50), Song, Arteta, Rosicky (Benayoun, 77), Walcott, Gervinho (Arshavin, 67), van Persie.
Subs not used: Fabianski, Park, Djourou, Frimpong.
Sunderland: Mignolet, O’Shea, Brown, Turner, Richardson, Cattermole, Vaughan, Colback, Larsson (Dong-Won 67), Elmohamady, Sessegnon (Wickham, 85).
Subs not used: Gardner, Meyler, Westwood, McClean, Laing.