The latest intimation that Arsenal are mere mortals reminded everyone of two things: Jack Wilshere is not necessarily England's most talented young midfielder and bold right-wing policies really can go down a storm in Sunderland.
Arsène Wenger may prefer to blame Phil Dowd, the referee, for his side's failure to secure three points but this was an evening when Jordan Henderson eclipsed Wilshere and Ahmed Elmohamady's right‑wing conviction made him man of the match.
Denílson did not seem overly surprised. "You can't expect to win at Sunderland," said the Arsenal substitute, sounding a little like a Conservative party candidate on Wearside. "Sunderland have beaten the best sides here; it was always going to be a big game. It's always difficult, it's a tough place to play but I still think we can win the Premier League. You can't use this one result to say we're not ready."
Wenger proved appreciably less sanguine, his weekend clearly destroyed by the moment, deep in stoppage time, when Arsenal's defence failed to clear Andy Reid's corner, Elmohamady headed the ball back into the box and Darren Bent lashed home a close-range equaliser.
Convinced the whistle should already have blown for full time, the incandescent Frenchman seemed to push Martin Atkinson, the fourth official. He icily denied that suggestion but a Football Association charge may yet follow.
Admittedly, it had not been the visitors' day. Despite taking a flukey lead when Anton Ferdinand's hesitation led to an intended clearance ricocheting off Cesc Fábregas and looping into the net from 35 yards – "one of those moments when you want the ground to swallow you up," acknowledged the centre‑half – fortune had already started frowning on Wenger's players.
There was even collateral damage from the goal, namely a hamstring injury which swiftly necessitated Fábregas's withdrawal. Although it did not look too serious, Wenger said he does "not know" how long his midfield talisman might be absent and will anxiously await the results of scans today.
In Fábregas's absence, Sunderland rarely allowed their guests to touch the flame of perfection Arsenal had grasped so breathtakingly against Braga in the Champions League last week. Indeed, largely courtesy of Elmohamady's pacy incision, they shaded the first half. "The kid was a threat all afternoon. I never expected Ahmed to make such an impact so quickly," said Steve Bruce, who was equally satisfied by the manner in which Ferdinand and Titus Bramble dealt with Marouane Chamakh's attacking menace.
Wenger's sense of grievance sharpened in the second half, when Alex Song was sent off, controversially, for two bookable offences but, up against 10 men, Sunderland floundered. Arsenal's impressive centre back pairing of Sébastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny certainly had few problems countering a barrage of long balls down the middle.
Further forward, the ever inventive Samir Nasri won a penalty after Elmohamady rapped his ankle. When Tomas Rosicky blasted the kick over the bar, Bruce breathed again before using the reprieve to further tweak a goal-chasing formation which variously switched from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 to 3-4-3.
Realising there was not much point having Bent, Asamoah Gyan and the very disappointing Danny Welbeck up front if his midfield – Henderson excepted – were still being outpassed by Nasri and co, he belatedly introduced some creative brainpower. Tellingly both Reid and Boudewijn Zenden were involved in the equaliser's preamble.
Wenger proceeded to cold‑shoulder Bruce. "He's never ever had a drink with me," said Sunderland's manager. "But Arsène is a genius and Arsenal are fantastic. Whether they can push Chelsea off their perch though, that's debatable. Both Manchester United and Arsenal have a hell of a lot to do to catch Chelsea."
"Arsenal are the best team," said Denílson. "We have the players and we have the touch. Chelsea have very strong players but they are old. This was just one game, we are still in a good position – and we play like Barcelona. Arsenal are going to win a trophy this season."
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