Confidence rising as Arsenal prepare for battles ahead
ARSENAL have had their style of football, their new signings and the extent of their ambition questioned more than ever before this season, but at least they comprehensively answered those about strength of character at Sunderland.
There were a few moans from manager Arsene Wenger about Sunderland daring to go in hard on the latest darling of English football, Jack Wilshere, after he was forced off with a badly bruised thigh, but mainly there was just pride at the atypical Arsenal qualities that got them through this encounter.
Fighting spirit, resilience and sheer stubbornness meant Arsenal won on Wearside.
They were so good in the first half they barely gave Sunderland a kick, and the hosts were only in the game because their goalkeeper Simon Mignolet pulled off a string of fine saves.
But in the second half, after Wilshere, who had pulled the strings in Arsenal's midfield, had limped off with a thigh injury and right-back Carl Jenkinson had been sent off for two badly timed tackles, Sunderland seized control and bombarded the visitors' goal.
From the moment Theo Walcott, who could have scored a hat-trick given chances he spurned, ran on to a laser-guided through-ball from Santi Cazorla (below) with 15 minutes remaining, guided a shot past Mignolet and then saw it come back off a post, it was easy to see Arsenal crumbling.
Under pressure, they defended deep and tried to hold on.
But Arsenal sides do not normally manage to do that on crisp winter days in the north of England when the home crowd are in full voice.
But the equaliser never came. Wojciech Szczesny matched Mignolet's brilliance in the first half, denying Steven Fletcher twice, the second a twist in the air to tip the Scot's header over the bar.
Sunderland's top goalscorer also sliced another good chance wastefully wide after the lively Stephane Sessegnon had robbed Aaron Ramsey and sent him in on goal.
Titus Bramble stuck out a leg and shinned another loose ball wide from inside the six-yard box, but the lead Cazorla had given Arsenal in the first half remained intact.
Whether it was more down to luck than judgment depends on your levels of cynicism. A win is a win and Mikel Arteta was clear in his view.
"You have to win games like that in the Premier League," he said. "There is no other league in Europe where it is as tough and no other league where the levels are as hard to get into the Champions League. In the last five to 10 minutes, they were banging balls into the box. It is difficult to get the ball out when they do that, but we defended really well and Wojciech made two or three outstanding saves."
With two potentially season-defining cup games coming up against Blackburn and Bayern Munich, the manner in which they clung on also encouraged Wenger, who will have been relieved to hear yesterday that Wilshere should be fit, along with Laurent Koscielny, who suffered a calf strain.
"We deserved some criticism in some games, but with performances like that the confidence will come back," said the Arsenal manager. "That will be useful as we go into two very big games now."
Meanwhile, heading out of Arsenal is left-back Andre Santos, who has travelled to Brazil to finalise a loan move to Gremio until the end of the season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)