Arsenal beat Sunderland 2-0 to keep slender top-four hopes alive
LONDON -- Arsenal maintained their outside chance of qualifying for the Champions League thanks to Alexis Sanchez's two close-range goals, but they took longer than expected to find a way past Sunderland's outstanding goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (who made 11 saves) and complete a 2-0 win.
On a rainy evening at the Emirates, this game felt distinctly "end of season" despite the fact that Arsenal still have something to play for. While an impressive number of Sunderland fans made the nine-hour round trip on a Tuesday evening to support a relegated team, there were an astonishing number of empty seats at the Emirates, with the true attendance probably hovering around 40,000.
Arsenal started brightly here, however, in their now-customary 3-4-3 system. Aaron Ramsey twice burst forward from midfield to create half-chances for lone centre-forward Olivier Giroud; first he couldn't get the ball out of under his feet properly, and then he forced a fine save from Pickford, unquestionably their star performer in an otherwise hugely underwhelming campaign.
Arsenal repeatedly had long-range efforts. Alexis Sanchez blasted a shot over and then fired in a deflected effort from 25 yards that was disallowed after Giroud was penalised for handball, much to the bemusement of the supporters, who weren't shown a replay to clarify precisely why the goal didn't stand. Giroud wasted another chance after Ozil's weak cross was deflected into his path, centre-back Rob Holding stormed forward on a solo run and found his shot blocked, while Hector Bellerin scampered forward from right-wing-back and drove a shot into the sidenetting. Arsenal's supporters became frustrated.
Sunderland, meanwhile, created two chances in curiously similar circumstances. Didier Ndong, playing an advanced midfield role, broke down the inside-left channel and his near-post shot was saved by Petr Cech. Ten minutes later, Jermain Defoe, impressively occupying Arsenal's back three on his own, made a similar run and whipped a left-footed shot towards the far post, where Cech got down quickly and saved.
The start of the second half was enlivened by a peculiar incident when Nacho Monreal hit a wayward back pass towards Cech, who frantically scrambled to prevent the ball from crossing the goal line -- or at least the byline -- but conceded an indirect free-kick in the process because he'd handled a back pass.
An indirect free-kick in the box is among football's rare delights. The positioning of this one was unusual: Sunderland had it right on the byline on the corner of the 6-yard box (the offence was closer to goal but indirect free-kicks can't be taken inside the 6-yard box). Arsenal's players looked perplexed at the idea they were required to be 10 yards from the ball and Sebastian Larsson stood over the free-kick, looking confused about what to do. Not to worry: He surprisingly scooped the ball to the far post (the zone where Arsenal's players were allowed to congregate anyway) and the ball was headed over for a corner.
Yet Sunderland kept coming. Larsson whipped in a glorious right-wing free-kick for a Billy Jones headed chance, although the full-back managed to mistime his diving header and the ball got stuck underneath him. But Arsenal upped the pressure and Arsene Wenger went for broke, bringing on Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck for Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs, switching to a 4-3-3 system with Sanchez and Welbeck either side of Giroud, and Iwobi and Ozil breaking forward from midfield.
Suddenly Arsenal had more attacking threats, and were pushing back Sunderland more. Sure enough, Arsenal took the lead within a couple of minutes. It was a typical Arsenal goal, a neat passing move that ended with a close-range finish: Xhaka expertly chipped the ball over the top, Ozil ran in behind and played a selfless square pass to Sanchez before the Chilean converted into an empty net. It was the type of goal Wenger probably envisaged at the start of the season, when introducing Xhaka and deciding to deploy Sanchez as a pure striker.
Arsenal wrapped up the points 10 minutes from time. Sanchez again converted into an empty net at the far post, this time after Giroud's hooked effort had been saved by the superb Pickford. The two goals means Sanchez is just one goal behind Romelu Lukaku in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot. They face each other here at the Emirates on Sunday, which might prove one of the few interesting tales on the final day.
Indeed, while Arsenal kept themselves in the hunt with this victory, Manchester City's 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion means the Gunners need relegated Middlesbrough to do them a favour by getting a result at Anfield.
Arsenal could well miss out on the Champions League after a historic run of qualification, although they've at least put up a commendable late-season fight.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.