Friday, 14 October 2011

Arsenal v Sunderland – Preview

Football returns to the Emirates on Sunday afternoon after another tedious international break, with visitors Sunderland currently a single place and a single point behind us in the table. The first of two home games in a row (with a Champions League trip to Marseille sandwiched in between like a fine French pâté), this really is a must-win fixture for the Gunners.

As always, injury concerns surround the team, with Rosicky and Sagna added to the now-familiar crocked list of Wilshere, Vermaelen and Diaby (am I the only one starting to forget what Abou even looks like?). There are at least positive reports that Djourou and Koscielny are now fit again after missing the Spurs game, so hopefully Song will be released from the private hell of his emergency centre-back role.

With Bacary Sagna out for the next three months, the key question mark on the team-sheet in the Christmas run-in lies at right-back. Wenger maintained in an interview this week (conducted with the hotbed of investigative journalism that is Arsenal Player) that there is no crisis and that he considers Jenkinson and Koscielny as the primary cover for Sagna, also mentioning Djourou and Santos as possibilities to fill the role. But the Brazilian appears to be as one-sided as they come, and Jenkinson has looked out of his depth already; not really surprising given that he was probably expecting nothing more than a few Carling Cup run-outs in his first season. Many would therefore prefer Koscielny to play at right-back, but in turn this clearly impacts on who plays centrally. With Vermaelen still out, the best partnership – and the one that we should be looking to get maximum playing time together – is Mertesacker-Koscielny. Shunting the latter to right-back is therefore not ideal, and with the decidedly suspect Squillaci out of favour it also means that Djourou will fill the other centre-half position. The young Swiss has not been convincing when called upon so far in this campaign. The situation, then, looks to be more urgent than Wenger is admitting. Come back Eboue, all is forgiven.

Whoever plays as right-back will probably come up against the twin threats of Kieran Richardson and Seb Larsson. With competition for places Steve Bruce has tried various different players out on the left, but given Arsenal’s defensive weakness in general at the moment, and the injury to our first-choice right-back, Sunderland will be looking to capitalize in this area. On the plus side their forward line is pretty depleted at present through injuries to Fraizer Campbell and one-time Arsenal target Connor Wickham, as well as the ineligibility of our beloved loner loanee Nicklas Bendtner. This paves the way for Ji Dong-Won to start up front for the Black Cats. He played for South Korea on Tuesday alongside our own Chu Young Park (who captained the side and scored a goal) in the 2-1 win over UAE, a 2014 World Cup Qualifier played in Suwon. Might be a bit knackered after the 11,000 mile round trip then?

In addition Sunderland's Phil Bardsley is suspended, and the always-ridiculous Titus Bramble got arrested recently, so he won’t be playing either. Players in police custody is at least one crisis that hasn’t affected Arsenal so far this season, although this time last year three of the squad had felt the long arm of the law, including a bizarre incident involving Craig Eastmond and his little chap (yes, really).

Arsenal should be capable of a win; we’re fairly free-scoring at home at the moment while Sunderland have lost seven and drawn three of their last ten visits to Arsenal, and have failed to score in their last three (thanks Opta). Statistics aside, one thing that is sure to be in both managers’ and players’ minds on both sides is that the loser on Sunday could find themselves in the relegation zone – which would be embarrassing for the Mackems, particularly given Newcastle’s fine start to the season, but it would be utterly humiliating for the Gunners.

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