Arsenal missed the chance to go top of the table in dramatic fashion last night when the Premier League's latest last-gasp finish denied them with just seconds to spare. When Darren Bent smashed home an equaliser after an Andy Reid corner that Arsenal failed to clear, Pat Rice had been on his feet appealing for the final whistle for at least a minute. Arsène Wenger was so frustrated at the end there was a suggestion he shoved Martin Atkinson, the fourth official, although the Frenchman later denied it. He had definitely been guilty of patronising Atkinson when Alex Song was sent off in the second half, patting the official's shoulder in mock congratulation.
"Do not ask me to comment about decisions of the referee," a clearly furious Wenger said. "I did not push anyone and I complained to nobody. The goal came in the 95th minute and if you have a watch you can see what happened. I know it is supposed to be a minimum period of stoppage time but nothing happened in the extra four minutes to justify any more."
Phil Dowd seemed to be generous in his interpretation of four extra minutes, for it was some time in the fifth that Sunderland finally managed to break down Arsenal's resistance, yet in a way a draw was no more than the home side deserved. Had Arsenal held out, it would only have been a fluke goal of comic proportions that took them ahead of Chelsea. In addition to Song's dismissal, Arsenal saw Tomas Rosicky blaze over from the penalty spot before the end, yet still the home side were entitled to feel they merited a point. Sunderland were never over-awed, always in the game, and with slightly better finishing could have caused Arsenal even more problems. "We had chances to kill the game but didn't do it," a slightly calmer Wenger accepted.
Speculation had been rife all week about whether the real Braga team turned up at the Emirates to be spanked 6-0, amid general disbelief that such a bunch of wimps could really have put Sevilla out of the Champions League, but not even a side of Togo-type imposters would have gifted the Gunners the preposterously soft goal Sunderland conceded after 13 minutes here. Perhaps the number on the clock was unlucky for Anton Ferdinand, certainly one of the most freakish goals of the season left Steve Bruce with his head in his hands.
All Ferdinand had to do was deal with a routine pass-back over the half way line, with the ball played to his feet. Virtually any option suggested itself, from a quick hoof upfield or the safety option of Row Z to a feint to throw the advancing Cesc Fábregas off the scent, yet the defender dillied and dallied until his opponent was almost on top of him then attempted too late to drive the ball past him. The Arsenal captain stuck a foot out for the hell of it and the ball ballooned upwards and backwards, sailing over the stranded Simon Mignolet's head and into his net from almost 40 yards out. "You expect wonder goals from Arsenal, not rubbish like that," Bruce said. "I haven't seen anything like it since my school days."
When you have luck like that and your other centre half is Titus Bramble you need to make sure you take your chances at the other end, yet for the rest of the first half Sunderland worked hard but were wasteful in front of goal. Nedum Onuoha rose unchallenged to meet Jordan Henderson's corner, only to put a free header high over the bar, and when the impressive Ahmed Elmohamady whipped over a dangerous cross from the right 10 minutes before the interval, Cristian Riveros headed into the ground from six yards out. Arsenal had lost Fábregas by that stage, sending on Rosicky as a replacement on the half-hour, and Sunderland – even with Asamoah Gyan left on the bench – might have been able to claim they had shaded the first half but for turning round a goal down.
Danny Welbeck opened the second half with a dipping shot over Manuel Almunia's bar, before Arsenal missed two chances to make the game safe in as many minutes. First, Andrey Arshavin could not make a telling connection when he got on the end of Marouane Chamakh's inviting cross, ending up spooning the ball up and over the goal from just a few feet out, then he missed the target again when Alex Song's pass left him a clear shooting opportunity. Bent headed wide when he and Welbeck appeared to go for the same cross, but Arsenal were beginning to find their passing range and Mignolet had to make a sharp stop to deny Chamakh from Samir Nasri's first-time ball.
The game changed when Song was dismissed after an almost an hour, with Wenger withdrawing Arshavin to bolster the midfield with Denílson. Song more or less had to go, having been treated leniently on a couple of earlier occasions in addition to a first-half caution for a foul on Henderson. It could be argued that he merely stood his ground and refused to get out of Steed Malbranque's way, but only by a rugby league referee, and Wenger had little cause to be sarcastic with the fourth official.
Gyan came on for the last half-hour and managed a header that Almunia saved, although Arsenal should have been two up by then, after Elmohamady's ankle tap on Nasri in the area. Rosicky went for power and sent the ball into the Arsenal fans in the South Stand. Henderson had a late effort saved, but it looked as though Sunderland's best chance of an equaliser might have been when Gaël Clichy cleared off the line from Denílson, before Dowd came up with his extra minute and Bent supplied the showstopper.
"It's never easy to take when you concede in the last 10 seconds," Bruce said. "I know that feeling but it was glee for us this time, though to be fair to the ref I think all the fuss was over an extra 15 seconds. Andy Reid spent that long trying to get the ball back from the crowd for his corner. I still think Arsène Wenger is a genius, he just doesn't like getting beat."
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICTPHIL WILSON, Observer reader I'm happy with the point because we were struggling to break Arsenal down, even with the extra man. Bruce got his tactics right because he packed the midfield but we were up against a quality team and we were certainly struggling to create chances. The turning point was the missed penalty, which spurred us on. Elmohamady had a really good game, winning everything in the air and was a constant threat. Gyan didn't have much service and didn't get into the game. At least we didn't have Cattermole sent off! We're progressing, and I'd be happy with mid-table and a cup run.
The fan's player ratings Mignolet 7; Onuoha 6 (Zenden 76 6), Bramble 8, Ferdinand 6, Richardson 6; Henderson 7 Riveros 6 (Gyan 63 7), Malbranque 8 (Reid 86 n/a); Elmohamady 9, Bent 7, Welbeck 6
BEN LOVER, Observer reader Really disappointed to concede the goal so late, although Sunderland probably deserved it and to come away from there with a point is not the worst of results. Phil Dale's refereeing was atrocious – up and down with no consistency. If you're going to book one player for something then not another it makes no sense. I think Song's two bookings were pretty soft . We got a fortunate goal and not too many chances. At the start of the second half we really had a chance to kill the game off and I feel sorry for the two centre-halves , Squillaci and Koscielny, who were brilliant. Fábregas going off injured is a worry.
The fan's player ratings Almunia 7; Sagna 7, Koscielny 8, Squillaci 8, Clichy 6; Wilshere 6, Song 6; Nasri 7; Fábregas 6 (Rosicky 29 6), Arshavin 6 (Denílson 58 7); Chamakh 7
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