Friday 23 February 2018

Wenger facing cold truth of Arsenal malaise


Louise Taylor at the Stadium of Light

It seemed somehow appropriate that Jimmy Montgomery's first day as Sunderland's special ambassador should end in a spot of FA Cup glory.

It is 39 years since his double reflex save at Wembley ensured Ian Porterfield's goal was sufficient to beat Leeds United and bring the trophy back to Wearside and, inspired by Martin O'Neill's management, Montgomery's old club have silverware in their sights once more. Barring a Champions League miracle it looks as if Arsenal will not be winning anything again this season. Indeed, it was perhaps not purely because of the plummeting temperature that, at the end, Arsene Wenger partially covered his face with the protective, zipped-up collar of his managerial coat.

As if listening to cheeky chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning," from jubilant Sunderland fans was not bad enough Wenger had to endure the experience of seeing his immensely disappointing side lose to a team which, until O'Neill's transformative arrival, were dallying with relegation.

A chill wind whipping off the River Wear proved so capricious that ball control took on a whole new meaning. With the heavy pitch beginning to cut up, the conditions were hardly ideal for an Arsenal side badly in need of restoring some morale-boosting fluency to their play following last Wednesday's Champions League ignominy in Milan.

When Francis Coquelin, drafted in at left-back, swiftly hobbled off with what looked like a hamstring injury, it seemed that fortune was continuing to frown on Wenger's accident-prone defence. With Sebastien Squillaci joining Johan Djourou in central defence, Thomas Vermaelen was required to relocate to left-back where he looked uneasy in the face of Sebastian Larsson.

Across on the left, James McClean sporadically had the beating of Bacary Sagna and the young Irishman's runs and crosses at times provoked consternation among the visiting backline. Although Stephane Sessegnon was nominally deployed as Sunderland's lone striker, Craig Gardner made frequent, defender-confounding late dashes into the penalty area from the heart of O'Neill's midfield quintet. With Lee Cattermole, recovered from a hamstring injury, anchoring that department, Gardner was free at times to serve as virtually a second striker.

It was Djourou's foul on Gardner that precipitated the free-kick from which Sunderland took the lead. Larsson swung the ball in and Vermaelen's attempt at a headed clearance fell at the feet of Kieran Richardson, whose left-foot shot appeared poised to fly fractionally wide until it was deflected off Squillaci and into the bottom corner.

Wenger slumped deep into his seat in the away dugout. The row of stony faces lined up alongside him on the bench reflected a north London mood hardly enhanced when Howard Webb refused Robin van Persie a penalty in the wake of a perceived foul from John O'Shea. Webb, though, adjudged that O'Shea's vital interception was clean and ball-winning.

Earlier, Gardner's challenge on Van Persie had won a free-kick just outside the area, floated wide by Mikel Arteta, but Simon Mignolet's sole important, first-half save involved him tipping a shot from Gervinho, returned from the Africa Cup of Nations, away for a corner. The second half began with Sagna bringing McClean down just outside the area. Up stepped Larsson, but this time his viciously swerving delivery flashed just over Lukasz Fabianski's bar. Wenger knew the clock was ticking and made a double substitution.

Squillaci, who had been holding his groin, and Aaron Ramsey, also nursing a knock, trudged off with heads down to be replaced by Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott. Some of Van Persie's off-the-ball attacking movement was superb but the service he received proved less so and, during the odd pause in play, his body language suggested he was a little fed-up. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did not enjoy his best game and luck certainly deserted him when, attempting to help out defensively, he turned the ball into his own net.

Sunderland's second goal began with Arteta's slip which permitted Sessengon to race almost halfway down the pitch before slipping a pass to Larsson. Although the shot rebounded off a post, Oxlade-Chamberlain proved powerless to prevent himself nudging it beyond Fabianski.


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