Arsenal ensured the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four will go down to the final day of the season with a laboured win against relegated Sunderland.
Alexis Sanchez tapped in Mesut Ozil’s square pass to the relief of those inside a sparsely populated Emirates Stadium.
As Arsenal increased in urgency, Sanchez bundled in Olivier Giroud’s cut-back to renew their hopes of a top-four finish for a 21st successive season.
Despite having 36 attempts at goal – the most in a Premier League game since 2003 – the Gunners could not wipe out fourth-placed Liverpool’s superior goal difference.
Arsenal are a point behind the Reds – who are two goals better off – before Sunday’s final matches.
Realistically, Arsene Wenger’s men must beat seventh-placed Everton and hope the Reds slip up against relegated Middlesbrough at Anfield.
Patience pays off for Arsenal
Arsenal started the evening needing to win – preferably by a big margin – if they were to have any realistic hope of sneaking into the top four.
They knew defeat against rock-bottom Sunderland, who had managed just three away victories all season, would end their hopes if Manchester City beat West Brom.
And with City cruising to a 3-1 win in their game, even a draw would have left Arsenal struggling.
Until Sanchez’s late intervention, it looked as though Wenger’s side would be left frustrated by a lack of conviction in front of goal and some stubborn Sunderland defending.
The Gunners found the breakthrough with 20 minutes left, Granit Xhaka picking out Ozil with a clever chip over the defence that was put back across goal by the German for Sanchez to tap in.
Arsenal knew just a draw against Everton on the final day might be enough to catch Liverpool if they wiped out the Reds’ superior goal difference, and Wenger urged his side to push for more goals from the touchline.
Sanchez was lurking in the six-yard box at the right time to convert Giroud’s volleyed pass to double the lead, but despite a late flurry that saw Shkodran Mustafi hit the woodwork the hosts were unable to add to their tally.
“Sunderland did fight and that’s what you want from every team,” Wenger said.
Empty Emirates illustrates Arsenal apathy
Arsenal have endured a turbulent season blighted by confusion over Wenger’s future, protests from supporters demanding change and concerns that Sanchez and Ozil may be sold this summer.
Swathes of empty red seats at a hushed Emirates Stadium illustrated the apathy of some Gunners fans, the subdued atmosphere compounded by Arsenal failing to make their early dominance count.
The Gunners created 18 efforts in a frustrating first half, only to be let down by wayward finishing and another impressive display by Black Cats goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
The 23-year-old boosted his burgeoning reputation with several instinctive saves after the break as Arsenal continued to pile on the pressure before Sanchez’s late double.
However, creeping past an already-relegated side is unlikely to appease the unhappy Arsenal fans who believe Wenger is not the man to take them forward.
Wenger’s contract expires at the end of the season and, although the club has offered him a two-year deal, he again refused to answer questions about his future after the match.
Some hope for Sunderland?
Sunderland manager David Moyes has endured a miserable debut season with the Black Cats, even agreeing with former England captain Alan Shearer’s scathing assessment that the performance of his players in Saturday’s defeat against Swansea was “disgraceful”.
The Black Cats, who were relegated with four games to go, are likely to undergo major surgery in the summer with many players out of contract and some – notably Pickford and striker Jermain Defoe – likely to be targeted by Premier League clubs.
But those players who have been heavily criticised did manage to salvage a modicum of pride at Arsenal.
Sunderland defended doggedly and even threatened to cause the Gunners some defensive problems, most notably when Didier Ndong and Defoe drew saves from Petr Cech before the break.
And the Black Cats were almost gifted the lead at the start of the second half when Nacho Monreal’s howler of backpass had to be scooped wide by Cech.
They could not capitalise on an indirect free-kick inside the Gunners six-yard box as their winless Premier League run at the Emirates extended to a 17th game.
Man of the match – Jordan Pickford (Sunderland)
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger:
“We had plenty of shots on goal but we needed to be patient. We were frustrated at half-time not to be leading.
“We made 71 points and were second. We now have 72 and want to go to 75. After that you deal with what happens.
“We’ve got in on the final day many times. Sunderland fought and you want that in the Premier League – that’s what you want from every team.
“We had a difficult patch after the Bayern game because it was difficult to recover. On the other hand it was a good mental test and we responded in a strong way.”
Source: BBC Sport