Sunday 22 April 2018

Giroud goes from villain to hero to keep Gunners on the front line

Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland

Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring
Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring
Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil (L) watches as Sunderland's Yann M'vila attempts an overhead kick
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger shouts instructions to his players from the touchline

Barney Ronay

Arsenal were by turns sluggish, incisive and oddly jumpy here as Olivier Giroud scored at both ends, one Sunderland's equaliser, the other the second of his side's three goals. At the end of a week when all the talk has been of Arsenal's mob-handed injury crisis the win leaves them second in the Premier League, still paddling, still defiantly afloat.

Victory against a composed, fast-breaking Sunderland was a reminder that there is still plenty of attacking edge in this team. While Mesut Ozil - who again looked at times like he'd wandered in from some superior parallel universe - can still twist and turn and pick a pass there will always be hope.

For all that, by the end here Arsenal had six defenders on the pitch and the visiting manager, Sam Allardyce, urging his team on wildly from the touchline. Sunderland broke with pace and purpose at times, with Duncan Watmore an energetic menace throughout.

They really ought to have equalised with two minutes left with the score at 2-1 - Patrick van Aanholt shooting over the bar from 10 yards with the goal gaping after a fine Jack Rodwell pass. "We exploited the weaknesses of Arsenal today very well apart from putting the ball in the net," Allardyce said. "I've never been here and created as many chances as we made today."

For all the talk during the week of twangs and tweaks Arsenal were still able to field a strong team, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell replacing the injured Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, and Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey manning a depleted central midfield.

Sunderland lined up in a straight 4-5-1. The visitors came to play, though, and with four minutes gone they should have opened the scoring as Watmore took Arsenal's entire back six out of the game with a diagonal pass to Fabio Borini. Unmarked, he shot straight at Petr Cech - the finish of a man who has one goal since May 2014.

Sunderland kept coming. Five minutes later Borini drew another save from Cech, this time with a close-range prod to the corner. Arsenal, meanwhile, were in Olympiakos mode, waiting for the game to turn, ponderously, their way.

Ozil made the opening goal, scored pretty much out of nowhere 12 minutes before half-time. Ramsey fed the ball into Giroud. He laid it back to Ozil, who stroked a delightful little pass inside the full-back for Campbell to slip the ball past Costel Pantilimon.

Campbell celebrated his second Premier League goal by sucking on a dummy hidden in his shorts, although really he might have considered offering it to Ozil, whose drive and execution made the goal at a moment when Arsenal were flat. It was Ozil's ninth assist, to go with four goals, in his last 13 games in all competitions.

Sunderland's equaliser came just before half-time, helped along by some horribly limp defending. Yann M'Vila delivered a low free-kick from the left. Ola Toivonen, unmarked, skipped over the ball and Giroud poked out a leg to shin the ball into his own net. At the end of a brittle half from Arsenal it was a fittingly porous moment, the kind of goal you might expect to see most weeks in the under-8s where things like simply blocking the ball or marking an opponent have yet to be fully ingrained.

Arsenal pushed a little more at the start of the second half, but Sunderland might have taken the lead on the hour as Watmore fed Steven Fletcher whose low hard shot was palmed past the post by Cech. From the corner, Fletcher almost prodded in at the far post.

Giroud, though, had a point to prove and with 65 minutes gone, from the same patch of grass from where he'd scored the own goal, Arsenal's centre-forward put them ahead with a neat, headed finish made by Ramsey's cross.

With Theo Walcott introduced on the right, Arsenal looked more urgent. They duly added a third just before the end, Ramsey poking in after a series of ricochets. "It was a very, very important game for us today for psychological reasons," Wenger said.

"We were edgy in the first half against a well-organised team. But in the second half the team showed their mental strength."

Allardyce believed he saw enough from his players to have warranted a third straight win. "We could have won, never mind a draw," he said.

"But we didn't because of our frailties in front of goal. I can honestly say I've been here with Bolton, Blackburn, West Ham and Newcastle but never been here and created as many chances as we created today that's for sure - but the sad thing is we have still lost 3-1.

"I'm encouraged by the players' performances and I'm really sad for them they didn't have their shooting boots on," he added.

"We have proven we can score goals and could've scored a few today but unfortunately we didn't. We failed to get a result and it is our fault - nobody else's.

"It was a good performance; I can't knock the players for their efforts. It's the best performance I've seen since I've been at the club."


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