Alexis Sanchez kept alive Arsenal’s fading hopes of qualifying for the Champions League as the Chilean broke Sunderland’s stubborn resistance to seal a crucial 2-0 win on Tuesday.
Arsene Wenger’s side were struggling to see off relegated Sunderland until Sanchez came to the rescue with two goals deep into the second half at the Emirates Stadium.
Despite refusing to sign a new contract, Sanchez remains the only Arsenal player consistently performing at a world-class standard and the former Barcelona forward, playing despite a recent thigh injury, is the sole reason they still have a faint chance of a top-four finish.
In reality, the fifth-placed Gunners need a miracle to qualify for the Champions League for a 20th successive season.
Arsenal’s sixth win in their last seven games moved them within one point of fourth-placed Liverpool, but there was bad news from Eastlands where Manchester City beat West Bromwich Albion to retain their three-point lead over Wenger’s team.
Arsenal host Everton on Sunday, while Liverpool entertain relegated Middlesbrough and third-placed City travel to Watford.
If Liverpool win and City avoid defeat, Arsenal will miss out on the Champions League for the first time in two decades, even if they end the season with a victory.
Wenger’s approval ratings are at an all-time low with Arsenal’s disenchanted supporters and it will be fascinating to see if he decides to stay if the top four proves beyond reach.
Wenger had urged fans not to boycott the Sunderland fixture in their latest protest against the Gunners boss, but when the Frenchman emerged from the tunnel before kick-off he was greeted with swathes of empty red seats around the Emirates.
Sanchez thought he’d given Arsenal an early lead when his 20-yard strike flashed past Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, only for a linesman’s flag to curtail his celebrations.
Olivier Giroud was the culprit after flicking the ball goalwards with his arm, and the Arsenal striker wasted a chance to redeem himself moments later when his close-range effort was pushed away by Pickford.
Wenger moaned this week that Arsenal’s top-four rivals were benefiting from playing teams with their minds already on their holidays, ignoring the fact the Gunners enjoyed victories over a Manchester United side more concerned with the Europa League final and a Stoke team with nothing to play for.
Sunderland, losers in nine of their last 12 games and relegated last month, were hardly a step up in class.
– Lead balloon –
Yet Arsenal didn’t find it easy to kill them off.
A sharp stop from Pickford prevented Aaron Ramsey converting Mesut Ozil’s pass, while Hector Bellerin curled just over before Granit Xhaka’s strike skidded wide.
Never totally convincing at the back, Arsenal were almost breached against the run of play when Didier N’Dong tested Petr Cech, who then had to save from Jermain Defoe.
That sparked another flurry of Arsenal pressure, but both Bellerin and Ramsey shot into the side-netting, while Rob Holding headed straight at Pickford.
News of City’s goals against West Brom went down like a lead balloon at half-time and Nacho Monreal almost deepened Arsenal’s gloom with a comically miscued backpass that had Cech scrambling to keep it out.
That foreshadowed a nervous period for Arsenal, who looked short of ideas in the final third, and after Giroud glanced a header wide, Wenger sent on Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi.
When the breakthrough finally arrived in the 72nd minute, inevitably it was Sanchez who saved the day, tapping in from virtually on the line after Ozil’s pass had unhinged the Sunderland defender.
Sanchez wasn’t finished yet and he doubled Arsenal’s lead with a close-range header from Giroud’s flick eight minutes later.
Whether it will be enough to save Arsenal’s dispiriting season remains to be seen.