Arsenal made the tough trip to an in-form Sunderland yesterday, knowing that they needed all three points to help them in their battle for fourth place. Earlier in the day, Liverpool had lost to Manchester United, and that gave Arsenal an opportunity to open a four-point gap on them. Both Chelsea and Newcastle had tough away games too, and a win for Arsenal would have been a huge boost for them.
Arsene Wenger made only one change from the team that beat Blackburn 7-1 last week, as Bacary Sagna returned at right-back in place of Francis Coquelin. The Arsenal bench looked stronger than it had in a while, and Wenger had some really good options available to him in case of emergency.
From the start, it was obvious that Sunderland were going to get as many men as possible behind the ball at all times. They tried their best to deny Arsenal space, and prevent them from attacking from the wings, too. It meant that Arsenal had a lot of possession in front of the Sunderland penalty area, but they created very little.
There were very few goalscoring opportunities in the first half, and neither goalkeeper was extended too much. Arsenal had the better first half, but Sunderland did look dangerous on the break a couple of times. Arsenal needed to up the tempo of their game in the second half if they were going to take the three points.
I had hoped Sunderland would tire in the second half after their midweek FA Cup exertions, and that Arsenal might be able to take advantage of it. Arsenal seemed to be on top at the start of the second half, but slowly Sunderland made their way into the game. Wojciech Szczesny had to make two very good saves from Craig Gardner in quick succession to keep Arsenal in the game.
Arsenal brought Thierry Henry on for the ineffectual Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain midway through the second half, but they found themselves trailing soon afterwards. Laurent Koscielny played an innocuous pass to Per Mertescaker just outside the Arsenal box, but Mertesacker fell over as he attempted to control the ball. James McLean raced on to the slip, and finished excellently into the far corner past the despairing Szczesny.
The pitch at Sunderland was in poor condition, and it looked like Mertesacker caught his studs in the turf before going down. He was taken off on a stretcher, and it looks like he might have some ligament damage in his ankle. I would imagine he will be out for a while which could see a return to a central defensive role for Thomas Vermaelen.
Wenger brought Aaron Ramsey on for the injured Mertesacker, and Alex Song dropped back to play in the centre of defence. It wasn't long before Ramsey had an impact on the game, as he scored Arsenal's equaliser. Mikael Arteta's shot was deflected his way, and he scored from just outside the penalty area via both posts.
There were 15 minutes left to play, and Arsenal now looked like the most likely team to win. Sunderland dropped deeper and deeper as they began to tire, and Arsenal went in search of a precious winner. Robin van Persie had a chance from a header toward the end, but it was straight at Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal.
With only three minutes left, Andrey Arshavin came on for Theo Walcott, and he was to make a telling contribution. The game went into the four minutes of added time, and Arshavin swung in a magnificent cross from the Arsenal right. Henry was in the six-yard box, where any good striker should be, and he prodded the ball home.
Sunderland tried to respond, but Arsenal managed to see out the last few minutes, and take all three points. It was a very hard-fought victory, but it could prove to be very beneficial by the end of the season. When the other results came in, Arsenal found themselves sitting in the coveted fourth place that they desire so much.
Both Walcott and Chamberlain were very well-marshaled by the Sunderland defence, but thankfully, Arsenal were able to utilise the skill and experience on their bench. The value of having a strong bench was never more evident for Arsenal than in this game, and the players who came on changed the game for them. Both Ramsey and Henry scored, and the much maligned Arshavin made the winning goal.
Arsenal's next three Premier League games will all be crucial in their attempts to hold on to that coveted fourth spot. They play against AC Milan and Sunderland again in the Champions League and FA Cup, respectively, in the next week before returning to league action. They then play at home to Spurs, away to Liverpool, and at home to Newcastle with the return leg against Milan thrown in, too.
It's a really tough schedule for the team, and they will need to show the determination that they showed against Sunderland to progress in all competitions. They have now won two league games in a row, and the three defeats of January seem like a distant memory. If they can come through the next three league games unbeaten then they will probably be favourites to finish fourth.
One player who won't be able to help them do so any more is Henry, as he will be returning to the New York Red Bulls after Wednesday night's game in Milan. His contribution may not have been much in terms of minutes played, but he scored two vitally important goals. He got them through the third round of the FA Cup with the only goal of the game against Leeds before getting that dramatic winner against Sunderland as well.
He did manage to score the seventh goal against Blackburn last week, but there was a little less importance attached to that goal. I don't know if he will get the chance to play against Milan on Wednesday night, but I'm sure he will again take the opportunity to say farewell to the traveling Arsenal fans after the game. He extended his record as Arsenal's highest scorer of all time during his few weeks on loan, and lived up to his reputation as a living legend.
I wasn't so sure how things would work out for him on loan at Arsenal for those few weeks, but there was a resounding success. Let's just hope the team can keep a hold of the momentum he has helped them to build, and finish this season on a high for a change. The FA Cup is a real target in terms of trophies, and Champions League qualification is within their grasp, too.
If the team hold on to fourth place and win the FA Cup, I will be a very happy fan, considering how the season started. I still can't see the Champions League as a genuine target for them to win, but hopefully they can at least turn over Milan and reach the last eight. I'll preview that game in the next couple of days, but for the moment it's time to wallow in the sweet smell of a Thierry Henry-inspired win.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
See you tomorrow.