Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s hero yet again as he kept his team’s hopes of a top-four place alive with a nervy victory over already-relegated Sunderland which provided a snapshot of the in-between land in which Arsene Wenger’s side reside in right now.
Arsenal 2 (Sanchez 72, 81) Sunderland 0
Not good enough to win the title, not bad enough to be out of top-four contention and with fans split over whether to back them or give up on them (let alone whether to keep their manager), it’s hasn’t been an easy season for the Gunners who know there is considerable rebuilding to do this summer.
But nevertheless, you have to it hand it to Wenger – he always finds a way to take his team into the final weekend of the season still in with a chance of Champions League qualification.
For long periods of this match, played in front of empty rows of seats, there was frustration and anxiety in the air.
But by the end, thanks to two goals from Sanchez (taking him to 23 in the Premier League this season) and a determination from those who did turn up to make a difference to the result, the crucial victory was achieved and the Emirates seemed to be at one again.
The result means Arsenal face Everton on Sunday still in with a chance of snatching fourth place from Liverpool, who are only a point better off.
The fact Jurgen Klopp’s side face Middlesbrough at Anfield, a game they will be expected to win, and have a better goal difference than Arsenal (by two goals) still leaves Arsenal as second favourites.
But at least they have put pressure on their rivals and kept the ‘dream’ alive. Not that it was a simple or comfortable victory, despite the scoreline.
For a match that had plenty riding on it the atmosphere inside the Emirates was akin to a pre-season friendly in the early stages.
In fact there were so many empty seats that it felt more like the Emirates Cup than a Premier League game in which a top four finish was still at stake.
Club officials claim the game was ‘sold out’ but thousands stayed away and many more arrived late, creating a ghostly feel to the evening, which hardly did Arsenal any favours.
It’s tempting to say the no-show was a comment on whether Arsenal fans want manager Wenger to stay after another frustrating season; but when you consider a Champions League place was at stake and there is only 10 days until Arsenal play in the FA Cup Final then it doesn’t really reflect well on anyone.
Despite that, Arsenal dominated the early proceedings, creating a string of chances and also seeing a goal from Alexis Sanchez ruled out. Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, one of the few players in David Moyes’ side who will be targeted by Premier League clubs this summer, also made a fine save from Giroud when the French striker was clean through before Hector Bellerin wasted an excellent chance set up by Mesut Ozil.
But by the end of the first half, Arsenal were running out of ideas after 17 attempts on goal and they even offered Sunderland hope of achieving an upset on the break.
Didier N’Dong provided a glimpse of what could go wrong if Arsenal dropped their concentration levels, firing in a shot that was well saved by Petr Cech, before Jermain Defoe dragged a shot across goal in a chance he created on his own on the break.
Defeat here for Arsenal, and the consequences of it, were unthinkable but at times it looked possible.
The game’s most bizarre moment came five minutes into the second-half when Monreal’s over-hit back-pass had to be saved by keeper Cech – who was then penalised for handling it.
The resulting indirect free-kick, from inside the six-yard box, was just about defended by Arsenal amid all kinds of confusion. It rather summed up the evening to that point.
The only good news was that at this stage the Emirates crowd finally woke up, realised what was at stake, and turned up the volume. The arrival of substitutes Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi added to the momentum and both goals came in the final 18 minutes.
The breakthrough came after 72 minutes when a wonderful ball through to Ozil saw the German side-foot across the six-yard box for Sanchez to tap home.
With the deadlock broken, Arsenal quickly made it 2-0, Sanchez from close range at the far post after Giroud acrobatically flicked the ball across goal.
At last, the tension eased, the Emirates relaxed and all the pain of the previous hour disappeared. We’ve been here before but fair play to Arsenal, they kept on going. But Sunday could be unbearable – both in London and Liverpool.
ARSENAL: Cech 7, Bellerin 7, Holding 7, Mustafi 6, Monreal 5, Gibbs 6 (Iwobi 69; 6), Ramsey 5 (Welbeck 69; 7), Xhaka 6, Sanchez 9, Giroud 5 (Walcott 85; 6).
SUNDERLAND: Pickford 7; Jones 7, O’Shea 7, Kone 7, Oviedo 6, Cattermole 6 (Gooch 77; 6), Larsson 7, N’Dong 7 (Gibson 87), Manquillo 6 (Janujaj 82), Borini 5, Defoe 6.
Referee: Roger East.
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