Arsenal travel to Sunderland for the first of two meetings in a week against the Black Cats, and it is imperative that the Gunners use this game to build on last week's thumping 7-1 win over Blackburn Rovers.
It would be absurd to expect anything resembling a similar result in the northeast—in fact, the Gunners will have their hands full against a Sunderland side that have been nothing short of sensational under new manager Martin O'Neill. A win, in my opinion, would be a great result.
Sunderland are unbeaten at home under the Northern Irishman, and in the 13 games managed by O'Neill, they have nine wins, two draws and just two defeats (0-1 losses at Spurs and Chelsea). They are the form team in the Premier League, and their tally of 15 points from the last six games is at least three more than what any other team has managed.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have just emerged from a significant form blip, having lost three in a row in January, away at Fulham and Swansea and at home to Manchester United. Their "form table" tally adds up to a miserable seven points, and this must improve if the Gunners are to challenge for fourth place.
Arsenal's squad situation has continued its upward rise, and Arsene Wenger has indicated in his pre-match press conference that both Marouane Chamakh and Kieran Gibbs are now available for selection. The latter's return will be particularly welcome, as the squad's shape and attacking threat have been significantly compromised in the absence of all their regular full-backs.
Chamakh's form has been woeful for over 12 months now, and it is hoped that his time away with the Moroccan team in Africa would have rejuvenated him. He will not start every game, especially given Robin Van Persie's incredible form, but if Arsenal do progress in the two remaining cups, his services will most definitely be required.
Bacary Sagna, also recently returned from a prolonged absence, will have a key role to play tomorrow to nullify the threat of Sunderland's wing players, Sebastian Larsson, James McLean and Stephane Sessegnon. His absence was crucial for the Gunners, who missed his consistency and solidity at both ends of the pitch.
Another key player for Arsenal is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The 18-year-old has taken the Premier League by storm over the past few weeks and capped a string of fine performances with two goals against Blackburn. Martin O'Neill has been impressed by the youngster, and will undoubtedly have made the best defensive plans to nullify his threat.
Arsene Wenger will also have to make a decision about how he plans to use Robin Van Persie over the coming weeks. Arsenal have three away games in a row, with a trip to Milan sandwiched in between two visits to the Stadium of Light. There may be a second mid-week game in a row should the first FA Cup tie end all-square.
While the temptation will be to keep red-hot RVP on the pitch throughout, Wenger will undoubtedly use his discretion and rotate his strikers.
Sunderland continue to be without Lee Cattermole, Wes Brown, David Vaughan and Titus Bramble, while Arsenal loanee Nicklas Bendtner, disfigured face and all, already disqualified from playing against his parent club, recently got himself into further trouble by allegedly trashing cars in Newcastle. Sweet!
Their loan signings, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Wayne Bridge, are eligible for selection and may figure against Arsenal tomorrow.
Head to Head
Arsenal's last 10 Premier League games (home and away) against Sunderland have yielded five wins, one loss and four draws.
The last five games at Sunderland look like this: D-L-D-W-W. Not an encouraging sequence if you're an Arsenal fan. Especially since the Gunners have dropped points in this fixture in recent seasons with some shambolic late defending.
It will be imperative to stay switched on right till the final whistle, as Sunderland have not lost their penchant for last-minute heroics. One only needs to look back at their recent 1-0 victory over Manchester City—if my memory is as good as I hope it is, the clock read 92:57, with only three seconds of injury time remaining, when Ji Dong-Won rounded Joe Hart and slotted home a memorable winner!
If that happens tomorrow, I'll be jumping right out of my chair, but with very different emotions.
My head says 2-2, but my heart is leaning towards a 3-2 Arsenal victory. What the heck, I'll go with my heart.
3-2 to Arsenal!
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