Fans applaud despite loss

The Northern Echo: DEJECTED: Sunderand prepare to kick-off again after conceding what proved to be the only goal of the game against Arsenal after 36 minutes at the Stadium of Light on Saturday DEJECTED: Sunderand prepare to kick-off again after conceding what proved to be the only goal of the game against Arsenal after 36 minutes at the Stadium of Light on Saturday

IF points were given out for effort and determination, Sunderland would have found themselves better off on Saturday evening.

Sadly that's not the case, but the sight of 46,000 Wearsiders clapping their side after a home defeat demonstrated just how close Martin O'Neill's men had come to taking something from the game.

There have been plenty of times this season when the final whistle has been met by a chorus of boos around the Stadium of Light and the Black Cats boss must be scratching his head as to why this kind of performance is so sporadic.

The game itself was a thrilling spectacle and as expected Arsenal turned up and turned on the style.

For large periods, particularly in the first half, Sunderland were mere spectators as Arsene Wenger's side knocked the ball around the park as if it was an exhibition match.

For all their possession, though, Arsenal were guilty of trying to over-play and when influential midfielder Jack Wilshere was forced off through injury and Carl Jenkinson sent off for two bookable offences, there was a feeling that the Black Cats could punish their opponents for not taking their chances.

They wouldn't have had such a chance had it not been for the heroics of Simon Mignolet, though, who single-handedly stopped Arsenal running away with it in the first half.

Those who turned up at the Stadium of Light two weeks ago saw more or less the same Sunderland side produce a completely different display that ended in a lacklustre goalless draw with Swansea City and O'Neill admits Saturday's performance is the benchmark for the rest of the season.

"I think that's exactly right," said O'Neill, who saw Lee Cattermole and Danny Rose limp off on their return to action. "We've got to aim for that sort of intensity. You will be forgiven for a lot of things here.

"Of course it's frustrating - I don't want to be repeating myself - if you give the ball away needlessly a couple of times, but that's going to happen over the course of a match.

"The very best teams give it away, but if the crowd feel there is an intensity about your game, I honestly believe they will forgive those things and I thought that's how it was today.

"We've some games left and anybody who would have witnessed the three games and particularly our performance against Swansea might not have recognised the side on Saturday.

"This is something we really have to impress upon. It's hard work and if that means that we have to be fitter than any other team in the country then so be it."

In truth, the game could have been beyond the Black Cats by half time but it wasn't necessarily down to their bad play or mistakes, the Gunners were just playing their hosts off the park.

Mignolet denied Theo Walcott twice and Aaron Ramsey once with three fantastic saves before Santi Cazorla finally broke the Belgian's resolve when he finished off a delightful move in the 36th minute.

Wilshere broke forward and fed Walcott on the edge of the area and he turned before laying the ball off to the Spaniard, who hit a low first time effort from outside the area.

There was nothing Mignolet could do this time, but he still had time to squeeze in another fine save to deny Ramsey minute before the interval.

The 24-year-old is fast establishing himself as one of the best goalkeepers around and O'Neill paid tribute to man who looks a snip for the £2m Sunderland paid for him two-and-a-half years ago.

He said: "He's done very, very well.

There are a number of very, very good goalkeepers in this league, but he's had an exceptional time here.

"Since he stepped into the side on New Year's Day last year he is improving all the time. He's been terrific.

"He is (a gem). Absolutely. He's done fantastically well for us and it genuinely couldn't happen to a nicer person. He's as modest as they come. He wants to improve his game and there's still improvement for him.

"He was disappointed last weekend with Reading's winning goal because he had taken a step forward and he was trying to anticipate and that's Simon. He's the first person to be self-critical."

Mignolet's heroics meant Sunderland could regroup at half time, but the game started to turn in their favour when Arsenal lost Wilshere and Jenkinson in the space of ten minutes.

The influential midfielder had been pulling the strings for the visitors and they looked deflated after he was forced off before things got worse when Jenkinson was sent off for a rash tackle on Stephane Sessegnon on the left.

The Benin international has come in for some criticism this season for his lack of contribution, but he was Sunderland's liveliest player and you can't help but think he brings more to the side from out wide.

O'Neill admits he wants to see more from Sessegnon, while he was also surprised to see Steven Fletcher miss a couple of great chances to equalise, although Gunners keeper Wojciech Szczesny made some inspiring saves to deny the Scotsman in a frantic final 20 minutes.

"I was chastising Alfred N'Diaye last Saturday, who missed an opportunity that might have got us the three points against Reading. I wasn't expecting my expert centre forward to do the same, you know.

"We still have players like Sessegnon, who are capable of going past other players. This lad, for the ability he possesses, should score double figures in a season. Into the penalty area, he's beating players and he should do better. He really should for that ability because he can be mesmeric.

"It's frustrating because this boy could be priceless if he could do that part of the game."

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