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Match Report: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland - An Excellent Opening Day Point

Craig Gardner had a very decent day at right back for Sunderland today.
Craig Gardner had a very decent day at right back for Sunderland today.

Just as last season opened with a deserved point at one of the league's big boys, so too has Martin O'Neill's first full campaign in charge of Sunderland.

Where last season it was a trip to Anfield and Liverpool that yielded a point for the Black Cats, this time around it was the Emirates and Arsenal as a stoic defensive display ensured the game ended goalless and got the Black Cats up and running.

As expected, Sunderland lined up in a 4-5-1 formation. Simon Mignolet was preferred over Kieren Westwood in goal, shielded by a back four of - from left to right - Kieran Richardson, Carlos Cuéllar, John O'Shea and Craig Gardner. In midfield Lee Cattermole captained the side from an anchor position, with Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson ahead of him in the centre. James McClean and Fraizer Campbell occupied the left and right flanks respectively, with Stephane Sessegnon chosen ahead of new boy Louis Saha in the sole position up front.

Despite Arsenal having strengthened their attacking options considerably, it was Sunderland who threatened first. With just four minutes on the clock, James McClean found a gap in the Gunners' defence and fired a low shot at Wojciech Szczesny, with the home keeper forced to parry the ball away.

This seemed to propel Arsene Wenger's men into action, and new signing Santi Cazorla stung the hands of Mignolet a mere thirty seconds later. The Spaniard managed to free himself from the attentions of Lee Cattermole, and fired an effort from around twenty yards that moved in the air on its way to the Sunderland goal.

On ten minutes Jack Colback broke through the Arsenal ranks, again calling Szczesny into action, but the game was a decidedly tight affair. The main tussle throughout was between Cazorla and Cattermole - the latter followed the former everywhere, like a tenacious shadow. Cazorla impressed on the ball in the opening half but couldn't fashion anything more meaningful than his early effort, and Cattermole's effective marking job stifled the home side's creativity - Lukas Podolski had a very quiet debut up front.

Aside from a few nervy experiences at corners, Sunderland's goalmouth was largely devoid of Arsenal attention in the opening half, and they went into the break with their clean sheet comfortably intact.

After the break, Wenger's men ratcheted up the pressure - but again, Sunderland held out in relative comfort. They dropped noticeably deeper as the game wore on, yet Mignolet was rarely called upon. Much of Arsenal's efforts turned into blocked shots - Cuéllar and O'Shea were brilliant together in central defence, a sight which bodes well for the coming season.

Cazorla was again the dangerman for the Gunners, notably going close on the hour mark, but - as stated - Cattermole marshalled him excellently. Jack Colback, too, had a good game, keeping Abou Diaby at bay. Seb Larsson was poor, and eventually found himself replaced by David Meyler.

Martin O'Neill used all three of his substitutions, as Saha and Ahmed Elmohamady also joined Meyler in appearing from the bench. Saha replaced a tiring Sessegnon on sixty minutes, and sought to stretch an Arsenal defence that pushed up in search of a goal. It didn't quite come off, his hold-up play could have been better, but the new man did enough to ease the pressure on his teammates at various intervals. Elmohamady offered much the same, and his aerial presence meant that Mignolet's long kicks - still not the keeper's strong point - finally had a viable recipient.

Arsenal's pressure was always likely to see them given a gilt-edged chance at some stage and, sure enough, it came with ten minutes remaining. Substitute and new signing Olivier Giroud broke into the box unhindered and, with just Mignolet to beat, somehow screwed his shot wide of the post. Wenger was apoplectic on the bench; O'Neill breathed a huge sigh of relief.

From there the game wound down in a scrappy manner. Arsenal's chance had gone, Sunderland were more than happy with an opening day point.

Team (Ratings In Brackets)

Starting XI: Mignolet (6), Richardson (8), Cuéllar (8), O'Shea (8), Gardner (7), Cattermole (8), Colback (7), Larsson (4), McClean (5), Campbell (6), Sessegnon (6)

Subs Used: Saha (6), Elmohamady (7), Meyler (6)

Man Of The Match: Carlos Cuéllar - Richardson, O'Shea and Cattermole were all worthy contenders for best performer today, but it is to the new boy that the award goes. Cuéllar, in his first start for the club, didn't put a foot wrong, showing composure on the ball and proving wonderfully adept at reading the game. Podolski was never allowed a chance to have a goalscoring start at The Emirates, and Cuéllar and O'Shea played alongside one another as if they had for years.

This was an excellent point for Sunderland, make no mistake about it. Arsenal were buoyant before the game but were never really allowed to get into their stride - playmaker Mikel Arteta was largely anonymous in midfield.

Lee Cattermole put in a true captain's performance, and was surrounded by a raft of hard-working teammates. The Gunners may bemoan Sunderland's perceived negativity - especially in the second half - but, after a tense summer, this was a brilliant start for the Wearsiders.

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