Petr Cech and the crossbar denied Sunderland a priceless 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.