Pre-Match Report

Sunderland v Arsenal - Match Preview

By Richard Clarke

While Arsenal's Champions League opener was a straightforward affair, reacting to it may be a different matter.

Arsène Wenger's side have six Group H games before the turn of the year, they follow all but one with an away trip in the Premier League. And two of those fixtures are at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

It would not be overstating the case to suggest that the extent of Arsenal's European jetleg will determine their title credentials in the first half of the season.

Saturday's game is a case in point. Only a stolen 95th-minute equaliser by Cesc Fabregas prevented Arsenal losing a Sunderland two seasons ago. Last term, Darren Bent's latish strike consigned the visitors to a crushing defeat.

Arsenal's last away trip, at a growling, physical Blackburn side, was heralded as a revealing test. The Black Cats don't wear black hats in the same sense. But the circumstances suggest they should be a similar concern.

"Sunderland are a good team and we know that it will be a very important game for us," admitted Wenger. "We know that the transition between Europe and the Premier League will be very important in our season too.

"In the first group stage, we are away after five out of the six matches.

"The situation is a bit better for international games now because they play on Tuesday so a Wednesday night in Europe to Saturday afternoon is the shortest time you will have [between matches]. And if you play away afterwards it can be a difficult game.

"Ideally you would want a team like Sunderland at home now but we can't choose that. We just have to show we have the strength and ability to focus on the Premier League straight away.

"Everywhere we go we try to win. It could be a good game and we'll be determined. It's important for our season as well that we're capable of going from Champions League to the Premier League. From Wednesday night to Saturday afternoon is short but we can rotate a little bit."

Wenger has no new injury concerns from the midweek demolition of Braga. However the manager has now got target dates for the return of Abou Diaby (ankle) and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles). Both are pencilled in for the visit of West Brom next weekend.

Theo Walcott (ankle), Robin van Persie (ankle), Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Aaron Ramsey (leg) complete the injured list.

Sunderland have had a patchy start to the season. The merit gained from a draw against in-form Birmingham and victory over Manchester City have been undermined by an opening day defeat to West Brom and allowing Wigan to peg them back in the final minutes last weekend.

Asamoah Gyan gave the Black Cats the lead that day. The striker was a key character in Ghana's success story during the summer in South Africa. He arrived in the North-East for major money on deadline day.

"I looked at him especially during the World Cup," said Wenger.

"I didn't know him too well. He had spells at Rennes last year where he didn't play and other periods where he was absolutely outstanding.

"When I saw him at the World Cup I found him extremely interesting and a good player but at the time we already had our strikers so I was not looking for him."

If Arsenal had started the season badly, the sympathetic would have sought solace in excuses - injuries for key players, World Cup fatigue for others, overreliance on adapting players.

However none of that has been necessary.

The tone was set on the opening day at Anfield when they were fluent enough in the first half to impress and resourceful enough in the second to claw back an equaliser at the death.

Since then they have won every game. Only Chelsea can claim to be in better form.

"We have a good spirit, attitude and great quality," said Wenger. "The attitude is very important for me because that is what it takes to make results.

‘But we know we need to take care of our team spirit. It is very good at the moment but it is always very fragile.

"Chelsea have maximum points," concluded Wenger. "They are still flying from last year.

"We know we must not give them any ground that is why Saturday is vital for us.

"If we maintain this sort of form on a longer term then I know we can takeover at the top."

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