Van Persie rescues Arsenal
This was supposed to be a relaxed afternoon for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal was struggling, yes, but faced a team in an even worse predicament, Sunderland: Its likable boss, Steve Bruce, is under fire more than Wenger.
As it turned out, the pressure increased on Bruce and lessened -- slightly -- on Wenger, following a narrow 2-1 Arsenal win at the Emirates Stadium that sent the Gunners into the middle of the standings for some breathing room. Arsenal can be thankful for having a truly world-class striker in Robin van Persie, who broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute with a trademark free kick.
Few could have envisaged a nervy Arsenal performance after what happened in the opening 15 minutes. Van Persie scored in the opening 30 seconds with his weaker right foot, depositing Gervinho's pass past a wrong-footed Simon Mignolet.
In the 12th minute, his exquisite diagonal chip, again with the right peg, beat Mignolet -- but not the post. Gervinho, meanwhile, should have done better with his shot from a promising position instead of blasting over the bar. Not hitting the target is becoming the norm for the Ivorian. He squandered an even better opportunity against Tottenham in the North London derby two weeks ago.
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Arsenal fans were beginning to get that familiar feeling. For all its possession and chances, a second goal didn't come. Predictably, Sunderland gradually got stuck in.
In the absence of a typical striker -- Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan have departed, and on-loan Gunner Nicklas Bendtner was ineligible -- diminutive African Stephane Sessegnon successfully led the line up front. He caused a moment of panic that gave Sunderland belief.
Played onside on the left, he latched on to a ball in space and eventually rounded Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny. Unfortunately for Sunderland, he failed to pick out a teammate and Arsenal recovered. The Black Cats soon leveled on former Gunner Sebastian Larsson's Beckham-esque free kick in the 31st minute.
With French international Bacary Sagna sidelined at least three months due to an ankle injury, Wenger opted for 19-year-old Carl Jenkinson at right back by default. He continues to look like someone who was playing non-League football last season.
Jenkinson, routinely caught upfield, was dispossessed late in the first half by Larsson. In one of the misses -- and saves -- of the season, Lee Cattermole's header from 2 yards was kept out by a scrambling Szczesny after the faux pas. Jenkinson was less troubled in the second half and at least showed a bit of urgency after the break.
Sunderland retreated in a chippy second half, and Sessegnon became less of a threat. On a trio of free kicks in good positions, Theo Walcott (mostly a non-factor), second-half substitute Andre Santos and Mikel Arteta each ballooned their chances over the bar.
Lively substitute Andrei Arshavin, on a high given that Russia qualified for Euro 2012, weaved his way into the box, dragging his left-footed shot wide. More encouragement came from Tomas Rosicky, who showed flashes of his early Arsenal form.
But it was van Persie who was easily the man of the match, deceiving Mignolet with his free kick, near post, into the top corner.
"I missed many in the last couple of months, so it was about time," he told Sky Sports.
If that was wonderful, the fans -- and Wenger -- will be happier still to hear that van Persie doesn't plan on doing a Cesc Fabregas or Samir Nasri by abandoning ship. He said as much in the game-day program and reiterated his stance afterward.
"I'm committed," van Persie said. "This is my eighth year, so if you can say about one player that he's committed, it's me I think."
Early battle for fourth
The goal for Arsenal this season must be to land fourth in the final standings, the final Champions League spot. Challenging for the Premier League title and Champions League crown is a pipe dream.
Sunday's late kickoff pitted Newcastle, which entered Sunday unbeaten in fourth place, at home against Tottenham. If the Magpies are anywhere near the top five in the spring, manager Alan Pardew will have worked a minor miracle.
Newcastle's fine start has come, bizarrely, after two stalwarts, midfielder Joey Barton and fullback Jose Enrique, left in the summer for QPR and Liverpool, respectively. And it was only in late January that striker Andy Carroll was sold to the Reds.
The points have come thanks mainly to a defense that had been breached a mere four times prior to Tottenham's visit. Offensively, playmaker Yohan Cabaye has been a hit since joining from Lille, Jonas Gutierrez persists in making effective, mazy runs, and strikers Demba Ba and Leon Best have surprisingly scored the goals.
The momentum ensues.
Newcastle twice rallied for a 2-2 draw to stay in fourth, two points ahead of Liverpool, three better than Tottenham and six clear of Arsenal. The final 25 minutes was end-to-end, pulsating stuff, the best the Premier League has to offer.
With Wayne Rooney banned for the group stage at Euro 2012, there's an opportunity for a striker on the fringes of the England squad to work his way into manager Fabio Capello's plans. Get picked for friendlies, and who knows what might develop.
Jermain Defoe did himself no harm, then. A natural finisher who slumped last campaign, Defoe handed Tottenham a 2-1 lead in the 68th minute with an instinctive, left-footed drive from the edge of the box.
Newcastle doesn't quit, and Shola Ameobi's left-footed shot to the far post in the 86th minute was as good as, if not better than, Defoe's. Minutes earlier, Tottenham had wasted two chances on the counterattack. In injury time, as the chances kept coming, Newcastle defender Fabricio Coloccini barely missed connecting on a teasing free kick that was planted 4 yards from goal.
The lone sticking point of the encounter was whether Newcastle should have had defender Steven Taylor sent off. Taylor fouled Emmanuel Adebayor in the box for a clear penalty in the first half, although Lee Probert only showed him a yellow. Thankfully, Probert didn't listen to Taylor, who protested his innocence and has a history of trying to con refs. Remember Taylor going down like he'd been shot when he handled in the box against Aston Villa six years ago?
Fortunately, great goals and exciting finishes will be remembered more on this Sunday.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.