A tough one to swallow at the Stadium Of Light today as the spoils went to the Arsenal, and Thierry Henry grabbing what is likely to be his last Premier League goal, in his last Premier League game, with what was almost certainly his last touch of the ball.
Our own heavy legs just didn't seem to have enough in the tank to see out the final few minutes of the game, but we can't at all fault the effort of the lads today. They gave it everything.
Time for our match report, with ratings and further comment. Continue reading...
Before kick off we wondered how those who played against Middlesborough midweek would hold up given the extratime played. Clearly, Martin O'Neill didn't think it would be too much of a problem as he stuck with the same starting eleven who lined up in that game. The bench remained relatively unchanged too as only the loanees, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Wayne Bridge came in to replace Craig Lynch and Adam Reed.
The first ten minutes of the game were relatively cautious, with the visitors slightly on top of things. The most notable chance falling to Robin Van Persie. Saved by Mignolet, and Van Persie was a fraction offside, nevertheless, an early worry in how the ball squirmed through both Turner and O'Shea to get to the Dutchman.
We managed to perk ourselves up though, carving out a few chances as both teams started to find their feet in the game. James McClean nodded over the bar from a near-post corner first, then later Stephane Sessegnon's mazy run ended with a bit of a scramble, and Fraizer Campbell's shot deflected wide.
Whilst our half-chances racked up, Arsenal carved one of the better openings of the first quarter. On a breakaway, Van Persie fed Theo Walcott who's cross-come-shot fizzed just the right side of Simon Mignolet's far post.
It was clear for all to see that our game today was to be about containing Arsenal for as long as possible before going in search of a winner ourselves. For extended periods however, it was our undoing as the visitors didn't overly commit to going forward.
With Fraizer Campbell out wide to help tackle the speed of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was simply nothing up front, and it was apparent every time Colback or McClean entered the final third.
Defensively though things were spot on. Michael Turner with a fantastic challenge on Van Persie, while every other Arsenal attack was snuffed out or had a Sunderland shirt in the way of things.
As we neared the half there was a few penalty appeals. First of all when Per Mertesacker under no pressure saw the ball bounce up and onto his arm, and although it could have been given there didn't seem to be any intent, and it didn't deny anyone an opportunity.
Shortly after Stepane Sessegnon also appealed when blocked off by Bacary Sagna, but again it may have been somewhat harsh.
As Neil Swarbrick blew the whistle to a chorus of boo's, we were left saluting our defensive stand, but wondering what might have been had we used another body up front.
Wave after wave of Arsenal attack opened proceedings in the second half, as for a solid 15 minutes everything seemed to be being played in our half. However, as bad as that sounds, Arsenal couldn't create a clear opportunity as O'Shea and company put up a stubborn resistance.
Relief came on the hour, when a succession of corners and very decent strikes by Craig Gardner nearly broke the deadlock. The first a left-footed drive which had Wojciech Szczesny at full tilt. The second a few minutes later had him at full stretch in the other direction, and the Pole got just enough of a hand on it for it to squirm wide of the goal.
Moments of quality in the game (from either side) were in rare supply throughout the second half, so it was no surprise when it was something completely out of nowhere which saw the opening goal.
Per Mertesacker, under no pressure whatsoever, turned on the ball and seemingly turned his ankle too as he crumpled in a heap. James McClean couldn't quite believe his luck as he nipped in and took the ball charging towards goal. Still with plenty to do, and not at the best of angles to beat Szczesny, the Irishman proceeded to simply smash it rather than place it across the pole and it was 1-0.
Aaron Ramsey came on to replace the injured Mertesacker, and it was he who made an instant impact and made things level. Mikel Arteta's initial shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to Ramsey who's shot came back off one post, then the other and finally nestled in the back of the net. Very unlucky for us, but by the same token we had been lucky ourselves to take the lead in the first place.
With legs becoming heavier and heavier we looked happy to see out time from that moment on. and the final 16 minutes of the game looked set to pass with little incident or fanfare. Robin Van Persie's flicked header was straight at Mignolet, and substitute Ji Dong-Won's tame effort rolled harmlessly wide. If that had been it, we'd have been perfectly happy with things, but sadly there was to be a twist in the tale.
In the 91st minute Thierry Henry popped up to head in a late winner from all of five yards. It was a sickener given we'd contained all Arsenal's attacks well to that point, but Phil Bardsley allowed Andrei Arshavin too much time to get a cross in, and neither Turner or O'Shea seemed to have Henry covered. Gutted.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (6), Bardsley (6), O'Shea (7), Turner (7), Richardson (6), Larsson (6), Colback (8), Gardner (8), McClean (7), Sessegnon (6), Campbell (6)
Subs Used: Dong-Won (5)
Man Of The Match: Craig Gardner - I thought Gardner had a mighty fine game today. He was the closest to anyone of scoring a goal (that didn't involve Arsenal self-destruction) and was generally full of hustle and bustle in the middle of the park. Credit where it's due to the defence who stuck to their tasks manfully throughout, and Jack Colback who put in yet another great performance.
And so we slump to our third defeat under Martin O'Neill. Not that we should feel downhearted by that as all those defeats have been by a one goal margin, and all to top teams (Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea). Legs looked tired throughout, and I'm sure we'll be better when we take them on again in the FA Cup.
Our efforts of late have been nothing short of magnificent and following the slew of games recently, it's no wonder the lads are knackered.
We have to give credit where's is due though as Arsenal pressed and plugged away, and I suppose eventually the pressure told. At least we'll have a chance to do it all again next week, and that pesky Thierry Henry won't be there to upset Marty's Party.
Ha'way The Lads.