Arsenal stays in the race for fourth amid fan boycott with 2-0 Sunderland win

The Emirates Stadium is a cavernous edifice. Arsenal’s soccer cathedral holds as many as 60,432. And at the majority of games, almost all of those seats are filled.

On Tuesday, Arsenal claimed that it had sold 59,510 tickets. But, plainly, there weren’t nearly that many people in the house.

There had been talk of Arsenal fans boycotting this second-to-last game – and home match – of the 2016-17 season to illustrate their dismay with the club’s status. With its regression, you might even say. Following the Gunners’ Alexis Sanchez-powered 2-0 win over already-relegated and last-place Sunderland, they will, in all likelihood, nevertheless miss fourth place and a berth in the Champions League for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

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Arsenal, stuck in fifth place, will have to make up a point and a deficit of two in goal difference on Liverpool on Sunday’s final matchday at home against seventh-place Everton. But Liverpool will host also-relegated Middlesbrough then, suggesting the Reds will have a far simpler afternoon than the Gunners.

Arsenal has to win on Sunday and hope that Middlesbrough somehow prevents a Reds victory.

The object of the Gunners supporters’ ire is their beleaguered manager Arsene Wenger. He took charge in the middle of the 1996-97 season, engineering that 20-season run of reaching Europe’s biggest continental competition. Unless Liverpool collapses, this will be his first major failure. And with his contract running out (and a new deal reportedly on the table), the fans wanted to send a message. Wenger had urged them to show up in spite of the calls for a boycott. Many of them didn’t.

Sanchez allowed Arsenal to live another day in the Premier League top-four race. (Reuters)
Sanchez allowed Arsenal to live another day in the Premier League top-four race. (Reuters)

Their absence was a vote of no-confidence.

It didn’t help that elsewhere, at the same time, Manchester City beat West Bromwich Albion 3-1, as Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne exchanged a goal and an assist apiece before Yaya Toure got a third and Hal Robson-Kanu saved West Brom’s honor. Having reclaimed third place from Liverpool, City pretty much put itself out of Arsenal’s reach.

In an open and disjointed game, the Gunners had some half-chances but few significant looks against Sunderland until the final quarter or so of the game. A long Alexis Sanchez shot was deflected past Black Cats goalkeeper Jordan Pickford by Olivier Giroud’s outstretched arm, but it was rightly disallowed. Giroud probably should have had a penalty when defender Lamine Kone held him down in the box on a free kick. And the Frenchman nodded a header just wide after halftime. Substitute Danny Welbeck’s searing shot was saved well by Pickford, too.

But finally, in the 73rd minute, Sanchez brought relief. Mesut Ozil tracked down a tape-measured ball over the top from Granit Xhaka and squared it for Sanchez for a simple tap-in.

In the 81st minute, Giroud volleyed a cross back in front of goal. Sanchez reacted quickest to Pickford’s redirecting touch and nodded it home.

It all felt very Arsenal, of the 2016-17 incarnation, and of so many seasons before it, in that the Gunners were resoundingly superior in talent but equally profligate. The result was strained when it could have been simple. They won by a few when they could have won by many. After all, 13 shots on goal should probably yield more than a pair of goals.

This, in the end, is the Arsenal fans’ beef with Wenger. For far too long, his teams have been inefficient, lacking a certain know-how in maximizing all that talent and winning difficult games. They are perpetually ponderous and incapable of converting promise into performance. And the soccer doesn’t always look pretty anymore, either. If you won’t win, and you don’t dazzle, what’s the point, many fans wonder.

On Tuesday, they made their argument with their feet, staying away, as their team likely plods on to its worst finish in more than two decades.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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