It has been a contrasting week for the Gunners. On Wednesday night they comprehensively demolished Braga in the Champions League but were then brought back down to earth by Darren Bent's late equaliser at the Stadium of Light last night.
As gutting as it was to drop two points to virtually the last kick of the match, there was a certain air of inevitability about Sunderland’s late strike, particularly after Tomas Rosicky’s 73rd-minute penalty miss. Arsenal had taken a fortuitous lead through probably the best deflection you will ever see and, in an incident-packed match, they had their chances to put a final nail into Sunderland’s coffin. But, as we have seen too many times before, they just couldn’t apply the killer blow and let their opponents off the hook in the final moments.
Cesc Scores from Freak Deflection
Complaints could be made about the time-keeping in injury-time and Alex Song stupidly getting himself sent off didn’t help - though the team did produce some good football after his dismissal. However, these would just be excuses. This was a match that could and should have been won even though the Gunners were far from their best. Sunderland fans will certainly have seen the draw as a fair result. From an Arsenal perspective though, despite failing to add to their lead, being one-nil up with seconds to go should have meant three points were taken back to North London regardless of what might have happened in the previous 94 minutes.
• Sunderland blog: Breathless entertainment at SOL
We all know that genuine title contenders can scramble wins when they are playing badly or don’t deserve it. Does Arsenal’s failure to see the job through yesterday mean that they are still not ready to mount a meaningful challenge? The answer to that depends on how they react to what happened. As deeply frustrating as the outcome was, it did serve as a timely reminder to the players that not every match will turn into a cakewalk once the lead is taken and focus must be maintained until the final whistle. Last minute equalisers do happen and as long as the players learn a lesson from yesterday and use it as motivation in the future then a draw at Sunderland is not the end of the world.
Some might point to yesterday’s lacklustre performance being a symptom of having a midweek Champions League match. It is hard to claim that as a valid excuse. Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs all managed wins after their European exertions and the manner of Arsenal’s victory over Braga should have meant they felt far from drained - quite the opposite in fact.
Wednesday’s 6-0 win over the Portuguese team was as one-sided a match as you could imagine at this level. From the first minute to the last the Gunners dominated, playing with relentless energy and inventiveness. It was hard to believe that Braga had put out Sevilla in the qualifying rounds. Maybe they were having a terrible off-day or maybe they just aren’t that good. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Arsenal could only beat what was put in front of them and they overcame their opponents with style, flair and aplomb. It was a wonderful game to watch.
You would have thought that the Gunners would be on a crest of a wave after that performance but at Sunderland they just didn’t seem to fire in the same way. Losing Cesc Fabregas after half an hour was a blow but there still should have been enough in Arsenal’s locker to get them home. The Spanish international pulled a hamstring and the manager and supporters alike will be sweating on how long it will take him to recover from this - mindful that the encounter with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is only two weeks away.
Though the team need to take collective responsibility for not holding on yesterday, it has to be said that Andrey Arshavin turned in an anonymous performance and many are starting to question whether he is truly worth his place in the starting line-up at the moment. His individual display at Sunderland was in marked contrast to the one he produced against Braga. On Wednesday he looked lively, a constant threat and made a tangible contribution. There is a suspicion that he is a player who rather "picks and chooses his games". In high profile Champions League games, he puts in a shift but when the chips are down in tricky matches away from home he often seems to go missing. So far this season he has been on the periphery of things more often than he has been in the thick of the action.
The Gunners cannot afford to mope about the draw at Sunderland because coming up on Tuesday is the Carling Cup tie at Spurs. Whatever team Arsene Wenger puts out, this is still a very big match due to the local pride at stake. Wenger has often used the Carling Cup to blood youngsters and give second-string players some game-time. It will be interesting to see what sort of team he puts out for this game, particularly after losing at White Hart Lane in the Premier League last season.
Almost more interesting though will be the team that Harry Redknapp selects for Spurs. In recent Carling Cup clashes between the two sides, Tottenham have fielded near-first-team line-ups. But now they have the added pressure of the Champions League stretching their resources, will they throw in a few youngsters to give their senior players a rest?
Either way, it doesn’t really matter which players turn out. The fans of both sides will be desperate to win the first North London derby of this season - and it is certainly a game which will afford the victors a big psychological boost to carry into their Premier League match next weekend and beyond.