Friday, 10 February 2012

Sunderland v Arsenal – Preview

Arsenal kick off the first part of a Gunners–Mackems double header at 3pm tomorrow, as they travel to the Stadium of Light for an important Premier League encounter. Next Sunday we'll be on Wearside again for the first leg of an FA Cup Fifth Round tie. If it wasn't for the midweek Champions League trip to Milan, the team could have *enjoyed* a week up north, sampling the delights of Sunderland – Hylton Castle, Roker Beach and, er, the National Glass Centre. Probably for the best – given the Gunners' injury record record this season, someone would undoubtedly have broken something (sorry…)

It'll be a tough task tomorrow. Sunderland are unbeaten in six at home under Martin O'Neill's tenure, and the team look utterly revitalised since he took charge. With a good mix of talented young players like Fraizer Campbell, James McClean and Jack Colback, combined with real pedigree in Seb Larsson and Stéphane Sessègnon, they form a potent attacking side.

Nicklas Bendtner the best striker in the world™ is of course ineligible due to the terms of his loan agreement while Sunderland also have injuries to various other players including Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown. The covering defenders that Martin O'Neill brought in on loan in the January window, Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, could come into the side though. Fortunately neither are very good at football, so the Gunners have a good chance of getting on the scoresheet.

From a Gunners perspective there's good, bad and indifferent news. Chamakh has returned home from the Africa Cup of Nations having put in some very dispiriting performances for his native Morocco. There's no indication that he'll play any better if called upon tomorrow. Conversely Gervinho is still out in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea (one or the other, not sure which) as he almost single-handedly dragged Ivory Coast into the final against Zambia. If you didn't see his wonderful individual goal in the semi against Mali, have a look – it's awesome (classic commentary on this clip too).

The Gunners are still missing Santos and Jenkinson, as well as the now semi-permanently injured Diaby and Wilshere. On the plus side, there's a chance that Gibbs could return after his lengthy spell on the sidelines. Everyone else is fit and healthy so we should see largely the same team that hammered Blackburn last weekend, although Sagna will probably start at right-back with either Gibbs or Vermaelen to play left-back. I would hope that both Rosicky and Ox-Chambo retain their places as both have been outstanding in recent weeks, and it would be good to see Henry introduced from the bench too. A second-half cameo in which he scores the winner with a trademark finish would cap a pretty successful few weeks. This will probably be his last chance to play in the red-and-white as it was today confirmed that New York Red Bulls have refused to extend his loan, so he'll be returning stateside on Thursday. In theory he could travel to Italy on Wednesday night, but it is surely unlikely. It's hard to fathom from UEFA's complex Champions League squad rules whether he's even eligible, given that he wouldn't have been named in the provisional squad for this stage of the competition. But I digress.

Arsenal really need a win to consolidate the optimism and new-found confidence that will have been generated by the 7-1 result, and to realistically have any chance of staying in the hunt for fourth place. Let's hope Sunderland don't upset the apple cart, either tomorrow or indeed next weekend when they could just as easily shatter our best hope of securing any silverware at all this season.

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What do you think, Gooners?