A disappointment, but a familiar disappointment. For Arsenal to drop points at home to Sunderland ought to be shocking, but it's not a completely unexpected result. Three big reasons for that.
1- Arsenal don't play well under pressure
2- Arsenal don't recover quickly from setbacks
3- Arsenal don't cope well without Cesc Fabregas
With the absences of Song, Walcott and Van Persie added to that list, it was never likely to be as straightforward a game as some assumed.
Bad luck played a part. Their keeper made a couple of great saves. Chamakh crashed a header against the bar. Arshavin sliced wide with Bramble falling all over himself and the Russian. And very late on, the same man was played through by Bendtner, danced around the keeper and rolled the ball in, only to be wrongly flagged offside.
But overall, it was the kind of Arsenal performance the Emirates has seen too many times- a slow start, turning into a frantic siege late on as Arsenal strive to secure a result. Since the move from Highbury easy home wins have never become a regular habit, and if you want another obvious contrast with the team that's going to win the league this season, there you have it. United have, if I'm not mistaken, only dropped home points once all season long. Arsenal have, by way of example, lost at home to West Brom and Newcastle.
The team needs more urgency at the start of games, but perhaps when the midfield features Denilson and Diaby, a lack of fluency is to be expected. The Brazilian has fallen out of favour this season, while the "new Patrick Vieira", as some idiots used to call him, is really a YouTube player who does a couple of amazing things during a game (that usually don't lead to a goal) and otherwise spends his time taking too many touches on the ball, slowing every move down and exhibiting a complete lack of footballing intelligence.
Arsenal created chances, particularly toward game's end, but without Fabregas the chances are never as frequent or as clear. We only really appreciate when he's gone the effortless creativity of the guy. I read recently that, statistically, he makes more chances on average than any other player in Europe. For all Arsenal's attacking midfield players, they find it difficult to replace that surgical precision. And for all the huff and puff of Bendtner and Chamakh, neither can blow houses down like Van Persie. A word even for Walcott, whose raw pace is a rare and precious commodity in the Arsenal squad.
Arsenal's injury problems have surely relaxed Barcelona ahead of the second leg on Tuesday. The man most likely to exploit the open spaces they leave behind them is out. And so is Arsenal's primary source of goals. The stalemate today increases the likelihood that Wenger will risk Fabregas and/or Song, and the way things are going, you wouldn't be surprised if that led to more injury problems. Remember that Fabregas played the first leg last season when clearly not ready, and as a result, wasn't seen for the rest of the season.
It all seems painfully familiar. A promising campaign falling apart in the space of a fortnight. The first two chapters of disaster are complete- the loss of the Carling Cup final, and the loss of vital points in the title race. Getting knocked out of Europe by Barca and of the FA Cup by United would complete a familiar picture.
It seems cruel that while Arsenal fall short of being a very good team, they are also a long way off being a lucky one. On Tuesday night they will need a whole pile of luck. Barca can step up as they like to, and Arsenal without Walcott will likely fail to break behind their high line effectively. And we can hardly expect Messi to be as profligate as in the last game, although you'd also expect Arsenal to defend much better than they did on their last visit to the Nou Camp. If Barca have a huge amount of possession- and there's no reason to expect otherwise- they will make chances. I think they will score a few and go through. Arsenal are unable to play the kind of disciplined game they need to.
It's a pity that the next week has become even more important than it should have been, as a result of that cataclysmic cup final. Because they messed up a relatively simple task, now the success of the season rests on two very difficult ones. If Arsenal cannot beat Birmingham, or Sunderland for that matter, why would the players believe they can win in Barcelona or Manchester? And if those games go badly, will the players have the heart or the energy to keep up with United in the league?
Sometimes it seems this Arsenal team are destined to fail, and that the only thing to be decided is how they do it. So let's sit back and find out.