Petr Cech and the crossbar denied Sunderland a priceless Barclays Premier League victory, as Arsenal failed to reclaim third place from Manchester City.
The Gunners needed to win at the Stadium of Light to edge ahead of City once again, but had to make do with a point from a 0-0 draw which lifted the Black Cats out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
However, they could have left Wearside empty-handed as Patrick van Aanholt hit the woodwork with a first-half free-kick and Cech made a series of important saves after the break to keep Sam Allardyce’s men at bay in front of a crowd of 45,420.
Sunderland went into the game looking to move clear of relegation rivals Newcastle and Norwich – but knowing that would be a stern test of their recent improvement with the Gunners fighting to secure a top-four finish.
The visitors dominated the early stages with the Black Cats simply unable to match their pace and movement in the middle of the field – and it was not until Allardyce managed to get his players to press higher up the pitch that they started to come into it.
Arsenal might have gone ahead twice within seconds after nine minutes when Vito Mannone turned Olivier Giroud’s shot behind after after it had clipped Van Aanholt, then claimed Per Mertesacker’s header from the resulting corner.
However, as the home side belatedly found their feet, Lee Cattermole blasted just wide from a half-cleared corner after Wahbi Khazri had seen an earlier effort deflected wide.
They came desperately close to the opening goal with 22 minutes gone when, after Jermain Defoe had been tripped by Laurent Koscielny, Van Aanholt hit the angle of bar and post with his free-kick with Cech beaten.
Mannone had to get down well to collect Mesut Ozil’s deflected 31st-minute effort after Cattermole had been robbed deep inside his own half by Alexis Sanchez, and he produced a fine save to keep out Sanchez’s free-kick three minutes later with DeAndre Yedlin blocking Alex Iwobi’s follow-up.
But there was controversy at both ends as the half-time whistle approached.
Defoe was convinced his side should have been awarded a penalty when his 37th-minute volley struck Mertesacker’s arms at close-range – but referee Mike Dean was unmoved, just as he was when Iwobi’s shot was deflected against Yedlin’s arm by Younes Kaboul four minutes later.
Cech had to be at his best three times within minutes as the Black Cats returned in determined mood, pulling off a fine double save to deny first Defoe and then Yann M’Vila, then diving to his right to turn away Khazri’s well-struck drive.
However, the Gunners wasted a glorious opportunity when Iwobi sliced across the face of goal from Giroud’s 56th-minute cross, after Sanchez had beaten Van Aanholt and Jan Kirchhoff.
Defoe lifted the ball over Cech but wide from Cattermole’s ball over the top eight minutes later, but Mannone was called upon twice as time ran down to deny substitute Danny Welbeck and Sanchez.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) April 24, 2016
Vito Mannone: 7/10
DeAndre Yedlin: 7
Younes Kaboul: 7
Lamine Kone: 7
Patrick van Aanholt: 7
Jan Kirchhoff: 6
Lee Cattermole: 7
Yann M’Vila: 7
Wahbi Khazri: 7
Fabio Borini: 6
Jermain Defoe: 7
Duncan Watmore: 7
Sebastian Larsson: 6
Petr Cech: 7
Hector Bellerin: 7
Laurent Koscielny: 6
Per Mertesacker: 6
Nacho Monreal: 7
Aaron Ramsey: 7
Mohamed Elneny: 7
Mesut Ozil: 6
Alexis Sanchez: 7
Alex Iwobi: 8
Olivier Giroud: 6
Theo Walcott: 7
Danny Welbeck: 7
Jack Wilshere: 7
Alex Iwobi turned in another fine individual display to leave the Sunderland defence chasing shadows at times, and might have capped a good afternoon with a winning goal.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
But for Arsenal keeper Petr Cech, Sunderland could have emerged with all the points and his 50th-minute double save from Jermain Defoe and Yann M’Vila was the pick of the bunch.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Sam Allardyce may have been alarmed by his side’s start to the game, but delighted with the way they stuck to their task to deny Arsenal time and space at the same as creating genuine opportunities for themselves. By contrast, opposite number Arsene Wenger will have been disappointed with his team’s lack of cutting edge and vulnerability at the back in a game which saw them dominate for long periods.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Arsenal dominated possession for much of the game, but too often over-elaborated in attack and failed to get off a shot with Sunderland on the back foot.
WHO’S UP NEXT
Stoke v Sunderland, Barclays Premier League (Saturday, April 30)
Arsenal v Norwich, Barclays Premier League (Saturday, April 30)
Allardyce was pleased with an impressed second-half performance from Sunderland and felt they could have nicked a narrow victory.
He told Sky Sports News: “I thought (in the) second half we did maybe enough to pinch the game 1-0. We had chances to maybe score and (I’m) not saying Arsenal didn’t have chances because they did, but with the amount of possession they had we did well to limit them to shots outside the box.
“In the second half, once we shut down Aaron Ramsey we started limiting what they were creating and we started putting the Arsenal back four under pressure so I was very pleased with the turnaround in our performance at half-time to put a lot of pressure on Arsenal.
“(At the start) We were a bit nervy, a bit tense, sitting back and taking what they had instead of getting on the front foot and closing them down and once we did that like I said in the second half we stopped them playing in midfield and that got us in the game.
“And a brilliant piece of skill from Jermain Defoe deserved a goal when he flicked it over the keeper’s head but unfortunately it’s gone wide.
“Overall I’m very pleased with the clean sheet and the point in the end.”
Wenger was frustrated that Arsenal did not have any goals to show for the opportunities they created.
He said: “We created a few chances and couldn’t take them. They defended well in fairness. You never create enough chances. We had enough chances to win the game but not enough to score today.
“It’s not the result we want. We wanted to win the game and now we have focus on the next one.”
He was, however, happy to see Wilshere return to the Gunners line-up, adding: ” It was not necessarily expected but he did good things when he came on.”