Post by Football News on May 16, 2017 23:30:26 GMT
Arsenal 2 - 0 Sunderland
Arsenal’s top-four hopes intact as Alexis Sánchez ends Sunderland’s resistance
Home team scorers Alexis Sanchez 72 Alexis Sanchez 81
It has been a long and arduous season for Arsène Wenger and Arsenal, underpinned by hostility and a basic lack of any real sense of enjoyment. It still has a pulse though. Wenger’s team continued their recent surge, digging deep to overcome obdurate opponents in Sunderland who, by the manager’s pre-match reckoning, ought to have been on the beach.
They were not and it took Arsenal until the closing stages to kill them off. Inevitably, it was Alexis Sánchez who inflicted the fatal cuts, the forward’s 22nd and 23rd goals of the Premier League season putting him one behind Everton’s Romelu Lukaku in the race for the Golden Boot.
More importantly, when Everton visit the Emirates Stadium on Sunday – the final day of the league campaign – Arsenal will have hope. It is the faintest of hope but it is hope nonetheless. If Liverpool were to slip up at home to Middlesbrough or Manchester City were to lose badly at Watford, the door would be ajar for Wenger to prolong his run of never having failed to finish in the top four.
Wenger said after this game that he had spent the past 20 years arguing with fans who have been underwhelmed by mere top-four finishes. “I don’t know why, suddenly, it [coming in below fourth] could become such a big problem,” he said. His tone was rather facetious but there is no doubt that if he could produce another one, it would put a more positive spin on the campaign.
It was an evening when a stand-out detail was the number of empty seats inside the Emirates. At kick-off, it did not seem overly generous to put the ground at two-thirds full and, in relation to the great debate over Wenger’s future beyond the end of the season, it felt as though fans had voted with their feet. It should be said that the ground did fill up – a bit.
Arsenal were nervy and disjointed, with Wenger saying his players had felt the strain of playing a fourth game in 10 days. They also ran into a goalkeeper in inspirational form. What a season it has been for Jordan Pickford and he further enhanced his reputation here. Arsenal mustered 36 shots on his goal and the statistics showed that he made 11 saves. He had no right to make some of them.
Sánchez, though, was relentless and he finally found the way through. He now has 28 goals in all competitions for the season and both of these were converted from close range, his poacher’s instincts to the fore. The first came after Mesut Özil had turned Granit Xhaka’s lovely ball over the top inside and the second followed Pickford’s save from Olivier Giroud’s volley. Sánchez had been a selection doubt because of a thigh injury and Wenger said he only named him in the team at four o’clock. He could be thankful that he was able to.
It was certainly a weird atmosphere until around the hour mark, more in keeping with a pre-season friendly and Sunderland had a couple of flickers on the counterattack in the first half, with Petr Cech denying first Didier Ndong and then Jermain Defoe.
Arsenal fired only in fits and starts and it said much that their first moment of excitement did not come until the 43rd minute, when Özil released Héctor Bellerín, who shot into the side-netting. On the stroke of half-time, Aaron Ramsey – who later limped off suffering from a dead calf – swapped passes with Özil and got in a volley that Pickford turned around the post. From the corner, Rob Holding failed to generate any power in a free header. Pickford had earlier saved smartly from Giroud.
Arsenal’s evening threatened to be summed up by a darkly comedic moment early in the second half, when Nacho Monreal threatened his own goal with an errant back-pass, and Cech found himself handling to concede a free-kick, which came to nothing.
The home team would eventually pick up the intensity, and so would the crowd. The trigger was arguably the double substitution that Wenger made in the 68th minute. Off came Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs; on went Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi and Wenger rejigged from his 3-4-2-1 formation to something closer to 4-2-3-1.
Welbeck made a difference and he forced Pickford into a sprawling save with a shot from distance. Moments later, Sánchez made the breakthrough and the relief among the home supporters was palpable. Arsenal finished with a flurry and, as well as Sánchez’s second goal, there were chances for Xhaka and Iwobi, while Shkodran Mustafi hit the crossbar. In the end, the result was all that mattered. Could there yet be a sting to the saga?