Graeme Anderson’s match report: First real glimpse of new dawn

Gardner's goal celebrations.
Gardner's goal celebrations.

IT said a lot that after a game in which Sunderland were outclassed in the first half and bottom of the league by the end of the second, that they should be applauded off the pitch at the final whistle.

But Sunderland supporters had not taken leave of their senses.

It was just that, for the first time this season, they had seen a glimpse of the sort of exciting, attacking football which Paolo Di Canio has been promising, but his team had thus far signally failed to deliver.

For a half-hour spell in the second half, Sunderland were the better side against opposition who would finish the afternoon top of the Premier League.

And only referee Martin Atkinson’s dreadful decision to disallow a perfectly legitimate Jozy Altidore goal – which would have made it 2-2 with 20 minutes to go – denied Sunderland a possible point, maybe even three.

That applause – acknowledged by Di Canio, who emerged from the tunnel to salute the fans after the players had left the field – showed that supporters will stay with their side if it continues to improve.

But the Italian knows that the purple patch in games has to be longer and that points are now beginning to matter as much as performances.

“I expected good displays from our first four games and I expected we might have more points,” he conceded afterwards.

“But the real value of this team will be discovered after the next 12 or 13 games, after it fully gels together, by which point we will still have 20 games left.”

The challenges Sunderland face right now were neatly illustrated by their opponents – an Arsenal side grown fat on regular Champions League money and blessed with the stability Arsene Wenger, the longest-serving manager in English league football, has provided.

His team, his system, is well-established and to it he has just added world-class £42million midfielder Mesut Ozil, who – ill on Thursday and yet to complete a training session with his new team-mates – still pulled the strings and was the architect of the opening goal of the game.

The ex-Real Madrid man has more assists to his name than any other player in Europe over the last five seasons and he added another for the opening goal of this game.

He will be some adornment to the Premier League when he settles – even on Saturday, he looked like a conductor coaxing his orchestra to greater heights.

In contrast, Sunderland have a rookie manager in charge who has notched up only a dozen games at his new club while spending half as much as Wenger spent on Ozil alone, to bring in 14 new players while moving on almost as many.

That theme of change at the Stadium of Light was underlined by Di Canio making five changes to the side which lost to Crystal Palace a fortnight previously – Ki Sung-Yeung and Charis Mavrias handed full debuts, the Jozy Altidore-Steven Fletcher strike partnership given its first airing and Valentin Roberge getting the nod over Carlos Cuellar and fit-again Wes Brown to deputise for the suspended John O’Shea.

With so many changes, it was unsurprising that Sunderland started tentatively and Arsenal exploited that, confidently absorbing the home side’s forays and taking the lead in the 11th minute on the counter-attack.

Full-back Kieran Gibbs floated a long ball down the left wing, Ozil brought it down with one fluid touch as it dropped over his shoulder and swept it inside where in-form Olivier Giroud fired home left-footed from 14 yards out.

It was Giroud’s fourth goal in successive games, his fifth of the season and first in the Premier League outside of London.

But while the Frenchman’s finish was emphatic it was Ozil who had put it on a plate with seemingly effortless ease and he continued to shine with some delightful defence-splitting passes.

Three times he played in Theo Walcott, exploiting the gaps between centre-half and full-back to play the simple ball into the danger zone. Three times the England man looked certain to score, only to be denied on each occasion by Keiren Westwood.

And the England man had another great chance at the end of the half when a skilful move from the visitors ended with a delightful chip from the left from Jack Wilshere which Walcott nodded wide at the far post with the goal gaping.

It was not all one-way traffic.

Only the crossbar denied Modibo Diakite an equaliser within minutes of Giroud’s goal, the defender heading a left-wing corner from Mavrias against the woodwork from the near post; minutes later Altidore stung the gloves of Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny with a long-range snap-shot.

But had Walcott had his shooting boots on, the game would have been out of sight for Sunderland by half-time.

Di Canio made a change at the break, introducing the bite and snap of Gardner in central midfield at the expense of David Vaughan, who had found himself largely over-run in the opening 45 minutes.

And straight away the ex-Birmingham man was called into action when Adam Johnson was brought down in the box by a clumsy challenge from Laurent Koscielny in the 48th minute – the Arsenal man nowhere near the ball – and referee Atkinson pointed to the spot.

Gardner has his critics among Sunderland fans, who believe he is not the answer in central midfield, but none of them can argue with the quality of his penalty taking and he strode up to absolutely smash a shot into the inside side netting of Szczesny’s goal as the Pole guessed wrong and moved to his left.

Sunderland had looked dangerous even before the penalty decision and they retained the upper hand in the minutes that followed, getting the ball in the back of the net in the 58th minute, only for Steven Fletcher to be ruled, rightly, offside as he tucked home an Adam Johnson cross-shot.

Gardner hit the post with a free-kick two minutes later and then a wonderful reverse pass from Johnson, from his own half into Arsenal’s, released Fletcher for another eye-catching attack, before stand-in skipper Johnson tried his luck with a shot across the Gunners’ goal.

So it was against the run of play that Arsenal regained the lead with another classy goal.

This time the supplier was the Gunners’ other full-back, Carl Jenkinson, who crossed into the box from near the right-hand corner flag, with the unmarked Aaron Ramsey smashing an unstoppable volley across Westwood from 16 yards.

It was a wonderful finish, but once again Di Canio will look askance at his defence – Sunderland’s central defenders were AWOL for Arsenal’s opening goal and, for Ramsey’s, no one picked up the Welsh international at all in the box.

To Sunderland’s credit – and no doubt buoyed by their previous confident play – they took the game to Arsenal and that effort should have been rewarded in the 71st minute with Altidore’s first league goal.

Mavrias chipped the ball forward for him and the American striker was held up up by Gunners skipper Bacary Sagna, who virtually had Altidore by the neck.

But the Sunderland forward held off his man and shot through the Arsenal keeper, whose block could not stop the ball trickling over the line before being hoofed out of goal.

Altidore was already off celebrating before he realised that referee Atkinson was disallowing it because he had already blown the whistle for Sagna’s original foul.

The Stadium of Light was dumbfounded that the official had not played the advantage, perplexed that Sagna was then only shown a yellow rather than a red, and finally infuriated when Gardner wasted the consolation free-kick to leave the home team still trailing 2-1.

A goal at that stage would have set up a grandstand finish – 2-2 with both teams going for it.

As it was, Sunderland had the wind knocked out of their sails by Atkinson’s decision and five minutes later Ramsey got his second, Arsenal’s third, to pretty much kill off the game.

It was another slick move – Ozil, Giroud and Ramsey interchanging passes through the Sunderland defence before the Welshman dragged a low shot under Westwood.

But it was cruel on Sunderland’s players who had deserved to be on level terms and cruel on their fans who were denied what would have been a fascinating finale to the game.

The Black Cats pressed gamely on, with Di Canio going all out for it – bringing on strikers Fabio Borini and Connor Wickham for Mavrias and the spent Fletcher – but it was to no avail.

And to cap a poor display by the usually reliable Atkinson, the referee left himself open to accusations of petulance when he sent Di Canio to the stands for questioning his refereeing late on.

Defeats, especially those which see a team go bottom of the league, can cause any group of supporters to lose a sense of perspective.

But Sunderland’s fans were supportive at the final whistle because, for the first time in five games, they had seen their team produce a half-hour spell of genuine quality and purpose against one of the division’s leading lights.

Sunderland rarely looked like getting their first league win over Arsenal in almost four years, and fans knew that.

But they also knew that a new side, still in its infancy under a new, young manager, had shown its first signs of blossoming.

West Brom will be no pushovers on home turf this weekend, but Sunderland’s players and their fans should at least go into the game with more confidence now, than they could have had before the Arsenal match.

Twitter @sunechograeme