By Richard Clarke
Arsenal WILL close the gap on the Champions League places with victory over Sunderland on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger’s belief that his side will finish in the top four remains rock-solid and it could come closer to fruition as a result of the preceding game between third-place Aston Villa and Chelsea, in fourth.
The Arsenal manager’s wish that “both sides lose” is beyond the realms of possibility but his pursuit of a place among the Big Four could be precisely the opposite by 5pm on Saturday.
Wenger’s men are five points off Chelsea and six adrift of Villa. They may be less than a win away from their primary target if both results fall correctly.
“The best situation is that both lose,” quipped the Frenchman.
“But above all most important is that we win, which is why I do not focus too much on that game. We know somebody will drop points, but let's focus on us getting the points.
“We can only focus now on being as perfect as possible until the end of the season, and see where we stand after. If the others are perfect as well, then ‘well done to them’.
“However, overall, I feel the ingredients are looking good for us. The team is in a good shape mentally and physically; the hunger and the desire are there too.
“I believe we will be there [in the top four], but it is down to our run and our efficiency now. We are in good shape and the close future looks very good if we can win the games.
“The players coming back can have a positive effect on the squad. We can finish the season in a very strong way.”
Wenger was referring to long-term absentees in that last quote. At Friday’s press conference he revealed that Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) is three weeks from a Reserve game, Theo Walcott (shoulder) is a fortnight from being in contention and Cesc Fabregas (knee) is about a month away. Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) and Mikael Silvestre (thigh) are also a matter of weeks not months from a return.
For Saturday, however, the changes are a little more mundane. Johan Djourou and Emmanuel Eboue are back after sickness and suspension respectively. Meanwhile, it is agonising to see Eduardo succumb to a hamstring injury after his spectacular comeback from a year out in Monday’s FA Cup win over Cardiff.
However, on the plus side, Wenger confirmed that new signing Andrey Arshavin will be involved. The Frenchman will make a late call over whether he will start or not.
While six points divides third, fourth and fifth, Sunderland have a seven-point cushion between themselves, in 11th spot, and the relegation places.
Roy Keane was replaced by Ricky Sbragia in December. The Scotsman has a creditable record of Played 13 Won 5 Drawn 4 Lost 4 and up front they have perhaps the Premier League’s most powerful pairing - Djibril Cisse and Kenwyne Jones.
In November, only a last-second header from Cesc Fabregas saved Arsenal from defeat at the Stadium of Light. It equalised Grant Leadbitter’s piledriver four minutes earlier. Don’t be surprised if there is late drama again on Saturday.
Arsenal have netted 12 of 38 Premier League goals in the last 10 minutes while Sunderland have hit eight of 27 that late. These are the highest ratios in the top flight. That said, Wenger was expecting the visitors to try to hit and run on Saturday.
“When we played against Sunderland at home, normally Roy Keane was very positive in the way he played his games,” said the 59-year-old. “But they were very cautious when we played up there so I expect them to be coming to try and catch us on the break.
“But I feel what is really important is to prepare ourselves well and to continue our run and not expect anything from Sunderland. They will be at their best and so we have to go out in a positive way.
“I believe this team started the season in a very negative environment and had to convince everyone that they had quality. But since November I feel the team is stronger and stronger.
“Now we can finish the season on a very positive note.”
And Saturday will be crucial in deciding that.
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