When the re-arranged fixture date, Dick Advocaat was, we’ll say, less than amused. Sunderland, desperate for survival, found their season hinging on trips to Arsenal and then Chelsea. Suffice to say, he hadn’t counted on the numbing incompetence of Newcastle United and Hull City’s inability to ever win a Premier League match in May.
The Black Cats future is in their own hands and whilst they may not get the point which ensures another season in the top flight, there’s no guarantee they will even need to. Mind you, with the confusion over the folklore surrounding Black Cats, there should little surprise that the footballing equivalent didn’t know whether they were coming or going for most of the previous nine months. Actually, they did know where they were going; to hell in a handcart, or the Championship as the Football League prefer to call it.
Arsenal need a point themselves to ensure the direct entry into the Champions League that third place brings. With two home matches to come against teams who in a combined total of thirty-four away games, have managed just seven wins all season. That record won’t improve tonight if Arsène gets his way although anyone thinking of a pre-match flutter might be looking at the odds on a sterile goalless draw with keen interest.
Wenger has studied his opponents with equal intent and offered his views on what needs to happen tonight,
Sunderland need a point to be safe so I expect them to be well organised defensively, sound at the back, and to try to use all the counter-attacks they can, all the set-pieces they have, to score goals. We have to put a high rhythm into this game and play with a high level of energy to win the game.
In other words, remember the first hour at Old Trafford and do the complete opposite. The zip which emerged with the changes suggest tiredness has crept in to the squad which at this stage of the season is hardly surprising. Even with a week between games, the efforts have taken their toll so it won’t be any surprise to see three or four changes tonight.
Having been largely responsible for the equaliser against United, Theo Walcott will be hoping for a start on the right tonight, surely a wish for which Arsène will acquiesce. A home match, in the final week of the season, against a relegation-threatened team, surely Theo gets the opportunity to prove himself or is the manager going to persist with the notion of putting his best eleven players into the XI? It hadn’t worked too badly until the last ten days but seeing the space enjoyed at the weekend, it’s hard not to see Wenger making the change, especially if he decides Alexis is the one to make way.
There’s no guarantee that will be the case but certainly, resting the Chilean and Santi Cazorla seems the most likely of changes. With ten days to the FA Cup final, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain were warned that a Wembley appearance is seeming increasingly unlikely with Arsène noting that “there is not a long way to go“. For tonight, it means Olivier Giroud will plough his lone furrow up front despite looking out of sorts himself in what is at the moment, an uncomfortable dip in form. You sense a goal or two would change everyone’s perspective on that.
Wenger’s only concern from the weekend is Laurent Koscielny who is responding to Calpol having suffered from a cold or something. All of which pontificating means we will probably see the same XI which started at Old Trafford, starting tonight…
One man assured of a place in the line-up is Francis Coquelin. Wenger poked fun at how the player cost nothing and has proven himself capable of playing for Arsenal. It’s a time when “the appreciation today of the quality of a player is just down to the money you spend.” And to some extent that’s true and it’s also fair to say that the manager’s appreciation today is of a player who took the shovel out of Wenger’s hands and dug him out of the hole he had put himself into.
We weren’t the only ones who didn’t value Coquelin; Wenger didn’t either as the player was another close to leaving. Fair play to the youngster – he still is although at my age, most footballers could fall into that category – for taking his chance but it might not be enough for next season. Arsène, no doubt trying to keep his compatriot on his toes, observed that Coquelin’s emergence had not changed his plans for next season and with 29 players, including four on loan, some were going to leave to make way for new arrivals.
Who that is, will become apparent over the summer; Arsenal aren’t in “transfer mode” just yet. Let’s hope the players aren’t in beach mode either. Celebrating third place is too much but a quiet satisfaction at not falling away as the season closed could be drawn, reinforcing the notion that there is something solid to build upon. Tumbling into fourth? It doesn’t bear contemplation so I won’t. For now.
Arsenal are good enough to win this game, they should win this game but with in the death throes of a season, relegation-haunted teams have a habit of churning out results when they need them. Even so, a professional performance from the XI ought to be enough.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
From The Vaults
There’s something familiar about the Daily Mirror headline; “Arsenal Need A Point“. On this occasion in April 1934, loftier targets were in sight with the title just a draw away. It duly arrived at Stamford Bridge a week later. The season had been topsy-turvy. Three defeats – one a three-goal drubbing at Roker Park in the return fixture – before Boxing Day had put Arsenal’s defence of the title well on track.
Victory over Leeds as the Christmas turkey became soup left Arsenal four points clear at the top – these remember, were the days of two points for a win. But the sunshine wasn’t to last as they proceeded to lose four of next nine and failed to win a League match in January, the players deeply affected by Herbert Chapman’s death. By the time they beat Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park, Arsenal had been overhauled by Derby County although only by a point.
Two wins over The Rams around Easter meant Arsenal returned to the top of the table and there they stayed, crowned champions as they finished three points clear of Huddersfield Town.
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