Pantilimon saves Sunderland as tired Arsenal fire blanks
Jack Wilshere returns for the Gunners, but Wenger must keep side fresh for FA Cup final
Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0. It was probably the most thrilling goalless draw in the history of Sunderland football club. Besieged by Arsenal for long periods, Sunderland survived 28 shots on their goal to earn the priceless point to ensure their survival in the Premier League, and condemn one of their local rivals, either Newcastle or Hull, to the drop.
Truth be told, it wasn't such a bad result for the Gunners – although their performance lacked energy and wit – and the draw means they are all but guaranteed third place. Mathematically Manchester United could still finish above them, but to do that Arsenal will have to lose to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, and the Red Devils beat Hull while overturning a goal difference of minus seven. "It is an important point," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose side have won just one of their last five league games. "We tried and tried. We gave a lot on Sunday [in the 1-1 draw vs Manchester United] to come back and you could see that the legs were not completely there tonight. At least we didn't concede."
The priority now for Wenger is to ensure his team are as fresh as they can be for the FA Cup final against Aston Villa in ten days. "We were not sharp enough, not quick enough," he said. "We are physically less fresh. We played about 58 games and you can see that... [but] we have some time to prepare and recover for the FA Cup final and I think we will do that."
The most pleasing aspect of the night for Wenger was the performance of Jack Wilshere, the England midfielder making his first start since returning from his serious ankle injury. If he was Arsenal's standout performer, the man who stole the show for Sunderland was goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon. He made a serious of sharp saves in the second half as Arsenal searched for the winning goal, none finer than his efforts to deny Olivier Giroud's flick and Kieran Gibbs' header.
"Our defence was great" explained Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat, who was overcome with emotion at the final whistle. "The players gave everything to stay up... I am really proud of the group. The group has come so far, they have given everything. Organisation wise it was brilliant. I had a tear in my eye, I have to be honest."
Advocaat replaced Guy Poyet as manager in mid-March and the Dutchman has performed a minor miracle in staving off relegation, though he was modest in assessing the reasons for the club's survival. "The players gave everything to stay up," he said. "It is a beautiful stadium, facilities are great, but last couple of years [we were] not always lucky with things we have done...the most important thing is the players start believing."
Asked if he will extend his short-term contract and remain at the helm next season, Advocaat replied: "Yes, I think so... I will give an answer next week on my future."