Twelve months ago, Arsenal left Wearside with three points thanks to Thierry Henry’s final Premier League goal for the club. No such heroics from the club’s record scorer this time around but injuries at the back mean that the team will need to ensure that they have their shooting boots packed. Thomas Vermaelen was apparently well enough to train this week with his national squad, well enough to knacker his ankle that is. International football has a bad press when it comes to friendlies and incidents such as this do it no favours with the club. Solving the problem is quite simple for Fifa; tweak the rule on injuries to allow clubs the final say on player fitness when it comes to the mid-season non-competitive matches. Presuming of course, that they won’t do away with them altogether. Which they won’t.
As it is, Arsène was relieved to find that Laurent Koscielny’s injury was not as bad as first feared, leaving the French international in contention for a starting line-up spot. With the alternative being Sebastien Squillaci, it would come as no surprise to learn that the manager had been invoking all manner of pagan rituals and black magic in order to make sure the younger of his compatriots passed his fitness tests. Squillaci might not make the XI at kick-off, indeed I wonder if he will make the bench with Ignasi Miquel surely a better investment?That Wenger did not mention the more experienced player as an option for today tells you all that you need to know.
Surprisingly (and yet not so), the manager is considering sending Andre Santos to Gremio on loan, willing to take the chance on the fitness of Kieran Gibbs as back up to Nacho Monreal. Well, I presume that to be the pecking order which reflects positively on the Spaniard’s debut against Stoke City. With Johan Djourou having already departed for the Bundesliga, it would leave a shortage in numbers in the back four but for the player’s sanity, it is a good move. Such activity suggests a firm commitment on the part of Wenger to resolving the defensive problems which have beset the team this season. They are not the fault purely of the Brazilian with some of the worst mishaps coming when he was injured; it does reflect on his diminishing confidence.
That said, football is about now, with barely half an eye cocked ahead. And a win now, will take Arsenal in the top five especially with Everton’s trip to Old Trafford tomorrow. Arsenal arrive at the Stadium of Light with one defeat from the last six Premier League trips whilst their hosts have lost five of their last ten home games in all competitions; Arsenal are not the only team who can find matters difficult in front of their own supporters. Goals have been hard to come by with Sunderland ‘enjoying’ the lowest number of goals in home Premier League matches. Typically of Martin O’Neill’s teams, they are hard-working and, well, that’s it really. They huff, puff and whilst struggling to blow others houses in, ensuring that other teams struggle to pierce their defence. To put it into context, Arsenal have scored more goals on their travels whilst conceding fewer than Sunderland. I would not expect a festival of goals this afternoon.
And that is not really important either; Arsenal scoring one more than their hosts is all that matters, taking the three points into a mini-break from domestic league fixtures. Ahead lie the differing tests offered by Blackburn and Bayern Munich. The three Premier League matches in February are ones that the team ought to be winning, must be winning if they have genuine pretensions for participating in the Champions League. Defeat would not end those aspirations, it would put more pressure on winning at White Hart Lane than exists currently; that would then become a must-win game. I’m getting ahead of myself there though, that encounter is a few weeks away.
For today, I would not expect many changes from last week’s win over Rugby Union, beyond the return of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski. Previously we might have seen Giroud drop out of the side for this trip but the value of a strong central striker is shown with possession retained more readily with the Frenchman’s aerial ability, as opposed to Theo Walcott’s reliance on pace. Make no mistake, that will be useful with Sunderland playing more expansively than the defensive ploy adapted at The Emirates earlier in the season. Mind you, this is Martin O’Neill we are talking about so the Black Cats sitting back, stifling the life out of the game with no ambitions toward winning cannot be ruled out entirely.
The line-up I expect is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny (Miquel), Monreal; Cazorla, Wilshere, Arteta; Walcott, Giroud, Podolski
As much as Wenger might want to nurse Jack Wilshere through the season, he is in top form right now and with a clear week before next Saturday’s FA Cup tie, the England youngster can rest. Indeed he might miss that match, having a clear ten days before the visit of Bayern Munich to The Emirates. As it is, I think he will play with Abou Diaby making way although his inclusion ahead of Podolski, shifting the team into more of a 4-5-1 formation cannot be ruled out.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.