West Bromwich Albion
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Real Betis
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Arsenal 'nearly men' at it again

Arsenal's inability to shake off disappointment has been at the root of their six-year trophy drought, yet this was the day when another negative reaction to a setback saw their own supporters run out of patience with the team that have traded in false promise for far too long.

• Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland
• Wenger 'disgusted' by decision

Last Sunday's Carling Cup final defeat was both humiliating and embarrassing for an Arsenal side who had spent the build-up to their Wembley date with Birmingham pondering whether injured skipper Cesc Fabregas or his stand-in Robin van Persie would lift the club's first piece of silverware in six years, so they needed to respond to the defeat and confirm they are still genuine title challengers with a thumping win against Sunderland.

However, with Fabregas and Van Persie resuming their familiar positions on the injury list, Arsenal fans were treated to another afternoon of frustrated heartache that was made all the more painful by two misguided decisions from the match officials that denied them the salvation they desperately needed as they looked to close to within one point of Manchester United at the top of the table.

Much-maligned Russian winger Andrei Arshavin was the victim of two cases of injustice late in this game as, first he was denied a penalty when Titus Bramble shoved him over in the box, before a misplaced offside flag cut short his goal celebrations that so nearly spared the anguish of the traumatised Emirates Stadium faithful.

The salvation they were crying out for was not to come and many of the Arsenal fans who saw their side draw this damaging blank had prepared themselves for yet more despair as early as the 20th minute of a game that was always laced with danger for Wenger's wounded troops.

With the majority of the fans present still hurting after Arsenal's Wembley defeat against Birmingham a week ago, it merely needed the sight of keeper Wojciech Szczesny being forced into a flying save to keep out Stephane Sessegnon to send a shiver of trepidation around the red masses.

With Emirates Stadium fall guy Nicklas Bendtner starting up front in the absence of Van Persie and Jack Wilshere handed the Fabregas role in the midfield engine room, Arsenal failed to flutter a Sunderland heart as Steve Bruce's 4-5-1 formation allowed his side to hold their own with some ease in the first half.

While the home side went closer to finding a breakthrough in the second half, a fine display from Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet and some wayward Arsenal finishing gave the home fans plenty of opportunity to overflow with frustration and thus was the story as this game wound towards its conclusion.

At first it was merely the odd stray member of Wenger's congregation who exploded with venom, but it was more a collection chorus of exasperation echoing around this stadium as the final whistle drew nothing but anger from supporters who are growing tired of the diet of failure the legendary French boss has served up since 2005.

Wenger was predictably downbeat as he met the media packed primed with their awkward questions and the Arsenal boss did his best to deflect his attention away from his side's latest failure by pointing an accusing finger at the match officials.

"After what happened at Wembley last Sunday, this was a game we needed to try and win 1-0 as I was never expecting a perfect performance," admitted Wenger. "The result we needed would have been ours if the two big decisions in the game had not gone against us, but what can I do about that. People may laugh at these poor decisions, but you would not laugh if you were in my position.

"I cannot deny that this result has come at a very bad moment for us and it is hard to say how big an impact it may have on the title race. Even though the performance of the team was excellent, we didn't find our attacking fluency and could not score the important goal and that means it was another disappointment for us to absorb."

Wenger's opposite number had some sympathy for his rival's increasingly anguished plight, as Steve Bruce suggested Arsenal's enduring wait for a trophy triumph is weighing heavily on the shoulders of a talented squad that appear to lack the belief all winners exude.

"That first major honour is all this Arsenal team are lacking and if and when they get it, which I am sure they will, then the floodgates may open for them," said a delighted Sunderland manager. "You look around their talented squad and there is hardly anyone in there who has won anything and that's got to be an issue for them.

"Manchester United and Chelsea have players all over the park who have a whole stack of medals to fuel their belief, but Arsenal are still chasing that first big prize and it may well be holding them back. That said, this is a two-horse title race and they are one of the two teams in it and they still have a big chance to win the Premier League, even after this result."

The concern for Arsenal supporters must be that, for all the platitudes their team receive for their flowing football, a season that has promised so much for them could be left in tatters over the next seven days as this latest setback is followed by a Champions League trip to Barcelona and an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

With optimism apparently draining away from those who pay their hard-earned cash to follow this talented - if flawed - Arsenal side at Emirates Stadium, you have to wonder whether the fragile confidence that clearly exists in Wenger's dressing room is also at breaking point.

Arsenal have come up short time and again when their dates with destiny have arrived in recent years, but failure is not an option for Wenger this time. The trouble is, such a desperate fate somehow seems inevitable for this team of nearly men.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Simon Mignolet

The Sunderland 'keeper pulled off a string of fine saves to keep Arsenal at bay, but he was helped by some poor finishing from the title chasers.

SNOOD UPDATE: On a day when FIFA announced that the snood neck warmers favoured by the more delicate footballers will soon be banned, Arsenal substitute Marouane Chamakh suggested he was ready to man up by first sporting the offending woollen appendage and then discarding it in macho fashion. Good on ya tough guy.

FOOD HEAVEN: Congratulations go to the Arsenal press office team who served up a magnificent chicken curry to those of us fortunate enough to be treated like royalty at Emirates Stadium. The ever-present ice cream fridge is also greatly appreciated.

ARSENAL VERDICT: They lacked ideas and invention without Fabregas, Van Persie and Theo Walcott, yet those three tend to be injured a little too much to rely so heavily on them. It is far from impossible to imagine a scenario that sees Arsenal winning the Premier League title, but the tide seems to be turning against them at a crucial point in the campaign once again.


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