Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Complete Premier League Preview, Team News, Prediction
Ladies and gentlemen, the real thing is upon us once again. The world's best league resumes competition this weekend, and Arsenal will get us started at home against Sunderland in a bid to perhaps crack the top two this season.
That may sound insane especially considering Robin van Persie's departure to Manchester United, but with some better luck on the injury front and the influence of new signings, this looks to be a bright campaign for Arsenal.
Initially, though, we will have to wait for some of the team's best players to return to full fitness and get back on the pitch where they belong.
Bacary Sagna is out until early September as he continues to recover from his second broken leg in a year, Jack Wilshere remains sidelined until at least a month from now, Tomas Rosicky shouldn't figure for more than a month after hurting himself at Euro 2012, and the same goes for Emmanuel Frimpong, whose ACL is still mending after a clash with Joey Barton.
That said, there remains a very competitive team that, once it builds up its fitness and gets its feet wet in the warm summer months, should be able to handle a team like Sunderland at home.
With every central defensive option fit, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny will probably protect Wojciech Szczesny, with Per Mertesacker available if Arsene Wenger wants a change of pace.
Who the manager picks in midfield will be more interesting. Assuming Mikel Arteta is fit, despite his absence in last weekend's friendly, he will probably start alongside Santi Cazorla and either Abou Diaby or Alex Song.
Song, as we know, is inching ever closer to a move to Barcelona, and it will be up to Wenger to decide whether the Cameroonian is settled enough to play effectively when there are other options available.
Again, purely for emphasis: Abou Diaby is 100 percent fit, and can start a Premier League football match if need be. Drink it in while it lasts.
What will really get Arsenal fans salivating are the myriad quality options that we might see deployed up front.
My gut tells me that Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott (who is rumored to be in line for a new deal) will assume the left and right wing positions, respectively, while Ligue 1's reigning Golden Boot winner Olivier Giroud will assume van Persie's mantle at striker.
The beauty of this system is that, if necessary, the manager could throw on Gervinho, take off Giroud, move Podolski to striker, keep the same formation and have an equally lethal attack.
Regardless of what Wenger decides to do, we should get a good idea of how he is thinking in terms of tactics, and how he initially plans to utilize the glut of options at his disposal.
Sunderland do not have a corps of players with quite the same renown, but the big news that has emerged from the Stadium of Light recently has been that Louis Saha has signed, which should inject some real quality into the team if he stays fit.
How will Arsenal fare against Sunderland?
He is now, though, and, despite his advanced age, he will be the main threat that Arsenal have to contend with up front, with Stephane Sessegnon and Seb Larsson backing him up capably in midfield.
Both have tormented the Gunners in past fixtures, and were it not for the brilliance of a certain departing Dutch striker, Larsson could have sunk Arsenal in this very game last season.
And as Arsenal fans with good memories remember, James McClean has the ability to change a game in a flash from his position on the wing. Thierry Henry's poetic late goal nullified a brilliant individual effort from the Irishman in February.
Martin O'Neill has had a much more frustrating off-season than his managerial counterpart this weekend, and a victory on the road would be a significant break in Sunderland's recent form.
After a difficult transfer window, the Black Cats did not win a single preseason game against the powers that are Leicester, Derby and York. With their confidence probably at a low ebb, it will take an unexpectedly good performance to stifle a resurgent Arsenal side.
Nevertheless, if Sessegnon can combine just once with Saha, you never know what might happen.
If Sunderland can work a bit of magic and actually eek out a win at the Emirates, it would be only their second in their last 18 league games against the Gunners, so history is not on their side.
While I'm not sure that we will see every one of Arsenal's new signings on the pitch at the same time tomorrow, due to fitness concerns and the transition to a new league, each should play a part at some point.
Ultimately, the quality of Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, combined with the great players already in the team, will probably prove too much for a Sunderland side that is already slumping.
One can never predict with great accuracy the outcomes of early season fixtures due to each side's lack of match fitness and practice time, but I see a 1-0 Arsenal victory on the cards, with Lukas Podolski netting his first competitive goal for the club and a sturdy defensive performance sealing an invaluable three points.
Let the madness begin.
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