Arsène Wenger's initial reaction was one of disgust, though that soon gave way merely to deflation.
The Arsenal manager conducted his post-match duties numbed by disappointment while his players struggled to come to terms with another opportunity passed up. "They are very down," said the Frenchman. "Of course I worry about picking them up but the team is mentally strong and the season is not over. The size of the game on Tuesday will help." The downbeat tone of his voice betrayed his true feelings.
Arsenal travel to Barcelona on Monday to confront Europe's most compelling attacking force with their current mood a stark contrast to that in which they had approached last month's first leg. Back then Wolverhampton Wanderers had been swept aside with Robin van Persie in the form of his life and Cesc Fábregas a purring presence as he conjured behind the front man. Momentum was with them. Now this team arrive in Catalonia denied their Dutch forward, perturbed by the state of their Spaniard's hamstring and, despite their slender lead, with confidence apparently brittle.
The Carling Cup has slipped through their fingers and, not for the first time this season, a chance to eat into Manchester United's lead at the top had been fluffed. The doubts over this team's ability to claim major honours will increase after occasions such as this when, denied their two most experienced forward-thinking players, they laboured through the first period and were frustrated by a familiar combination of profligacy and oversights from the officials after the break.
Wenger was justified in his criticisms that his side had been denied a penalty when Titus Bramble tumbled and fouled Andrey Arshavin – "maybe he was a bit too honest," said the centre-half of his opponent, who had managed to shoot regardless – and that the Russian was later erroneously flagged offside when sent through by Nicklas Bendtner's pass. The manager was "disgusted" straight afterwards, though that quickly became resignation. "What can I say?" he said. "When you look at the impact these decisions have on the season, it is really frustrating."
The lack of urgency that had initially undermined Arsenal's challenge would have disturbed him just as much, with them over-reliant on Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere without Fábregas to dictate their tempo. This side's build-up play can be laboured without the slippery Van Persie at the tip of their formation. Bendtner can seem ponderous in comparison and, although Marouane Chamakh made an impact on his introduction, the Moroccan planted a free header wastefully on to the bar and looked like a player without a Premier League goal since late November. Both could yet feature in the starting line-up in Barcelona, where such chances cannot be missed. The potential absence of Alex Song, too, creates concern. Denílson's impact was disappointing on Saturday and Abou Diaby only recently returned from his own injury problems.
Yet, even if two points were surrendered, there were plus points. Wilshere may have emerged with his ankles swollen and calves bruised from Sunderland's close attention – "Every good player has to live with being kicked," said Wenger – but he has declared himself fit and continues to justify his lofty reputation. He played a more advanced role here, in Fábregas's position, and was a comfortable blend of invention and industry. Defensively, too, the scars of Wembley may have healed. Wojciech Szczesny made fine saves from Daniel Welbeck, Stéphane Sessègnon and Jordan Henderson to suggest his personal confidence has not been affected, while Laurent Koscielny was solid enough alongside Johan Djourou. Barça will test the back-line more persuasively than Sunderland but the time has come to cling to positives.
Sunderland, too, could do just that. This draw choked a run of four defeats and was well merited, even given the assistance from the officials, with their own solidity admirable. Sessègnon, at £6m, looks a fine addition on the flank, Henderson performance suggested appears to be returning to his best, while the 22-year-old goalkeeper Simon Mignolet flourished in an arena that has been relatively unforgiving for Sunderland goalkeepers in the recent past. Steve Bruce had cause for optimism, even if he retained some sympathy for Arsenal.
"The first [trophy] is always the most difficult," he said. "When I was at Manchester United we were chasing our first title in what, 26 years? That first one was the hardest. It's the same for this young Arsenal team. But the manager's a genius and, for me, it's only a matter of time."
Arsenal can tap into that positivity when travelling to Spain. There is still significant silverware to be won this season, with the enticing prospect of Barça and United in the Cup to come this week. Saturday's sense of deflation will have been replaced by the thrill of anticipation as the players arrive in Spain. Now is not the time to dwell on goalless disappointment.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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