Pre-Match Report

Sunderland v Arsenal - Match Preview

By Richard Clarke 

"Points are going to be dropped this weekend among the contenders for fourth place. Just as long as it is not us. 

"We know what is going to be expected and we know that we are in a position now where we just want to win our games. That is the case until the end of the season. We have to be absolutely, completely up for it and to be focused to win."

That was Arsène Wenger rounding off his interview with Arsenal Player on Thursday. At his press conference a day later, the Frenchman would add that the upcoming period will "decide our season". He had already outlined why the next week would be the biggest of the campaign so far.

You kinda get the picture don't you. We are entering the business end of 2011/2012.

In the next week, Arsenal have three away games in their three remaining competitions against two opponents.

Sunderland on Saturday in the Premier League, Milan on Wednesday and then Sunderland again next Saturday in the FA Cup.

Three victories could jet-propel the season. Meanwhile, only defeat in the last fixture would be terminal of course but Arsenal can ill-afford to fall behind in the race for fourth-place or give a canny, offensively-minded Milan side an advantage with which to travel to Emirates Stadium on March 6.

But who needs to think that way?

Sunderland may be the form side in the Premier League but they were forced to toil 120 minutes in an FA Cup replay on Wednesday while Arsenal had their collective feet up as they basked in the glory of that 7-1 win over Blackburn the previous Saturday.

That result saw Wenger's men rise above Liverpool and close within three points of fourth-place Chelsea. Elsewhere, Newcastle stayed fifth with a doughty 2-1 win over Aston Villa as the pack stayed bunched tightly together.

The entire quartet have tough-looking away trips this weekend. Arsenal at Sunderland, Chelsea at Everton, Liverpool at Manchester United and Newcastle at Tottenham. 

The going is getting tough now and you know what that means.

"It is very important now because in one week we play three games in three different competitions. And, in every single competition we are, of course, in a position where we want to win our games. 

"The win over Blackburn eased our minds a little because we were under shock having lost three games in a row. We'd had the cup win against Villa and even the Bolton game where we thought we had a decent performance but Saturday helped a little bit to rebuild the confidence.

"For us, Sunderland is a massive game for us because it is the start of this [special] week. To have a successful week it is important to start very well, so the Sunderland game is the most important game. Therefore you just have to pick your team to have a chance of winning this game.

"There is no-one out from previous weekend, so everybody who was available last Saturday is available again this Saturday. We have still, of course, Diaby and Wilshere who are not available but Gibbs is back in full training now. Overall the situation looks a lot more positive in a period that will decide our season and so it is good to have the players back."

As Wenger said, Arsenal will field a full-strength side at Sunderland. Later, at his press conference, the manager confirmed that Robin van Persie would start and Marouane Chamakh is available after his stint at the African Cup of Nations.

But despite the ‘go-for-it-early' approach there is still the question of how Wenger will shuffle his resources over these three tiring trips.

"It is a mixture of science, the approach of the next game, how the players feel, who is available behind the player, who is tired and, of course, the last result," replied the manager when asked for his recipe.

For his part, O'Neill certainly seems to have blended the right consistency at the Stadium of Light right now.

If the Premier League had started the day the Irishman was appointed then Sunderland would be strong title contenders. If it had started on New Year's Day, they would be top.

O'Neill has steered his side to 22 points out of 30 points in the League and the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. The latter came courtesy of a late strike by Stephane Sessignon at Middlesbrough on Wednesday. Sunderland's top scorer is direct, pacy, beautifully balanced and had a relatively low-profile in French football before arriving in England. A Wenger-style acquistion.

"Yes [we knew about him] because he played at Le Mans and from there he went to Paris St Germain," said the manager. "I didn't know him when he played at Le Mans very well but at PSG I saw that he has exceptional talent. I don't know why PSG sold him because when you see them today they would be happy to have a Sessegnon. It was good business for Sunderland."

The Benin international arrived in the North-East just over a year ago and had already started to sparkle before O'Neill's appointment. 

James McLean, on the other hand, has played all his Premier League football under the new manager. The 22-year-old midfielder, who only arrived from Derry City in August, has impressed Wenger.

"I feel he has done well," said the Frenchman. "He is a typical left-sided player. But he is not only a straight-line runner, he is flexible as well with crosses from all areas and that crossing is quality.

"But then Sunderland were always a good side even before [O'Neill arrived]. I thought that Steve Bruce was a bit unlucky because they lost some games you wondered how they could lose. Then the confidence can drop but, when a new manager comes in, all the negative vibes go out for a while. You just get your confidence back. 

"But Martin O'Neill is also a good manager so you are not surprised at what has happened. 

"For us I believe what is most important is to go there and to win this game," concluded Wenger.

"We know what is expected of us. We have to put absolutely everything into it." 

And, of course, the sentiment of that last paragraph must be multiplied by a power three over the course of the crucial week coming up.

Team news: 

Arsenal - Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (anle), Diaby (hamstring), Santos (ankle)

Sunderland - Sessegnon (doubt - cramp), Cattermole (hamstring), Vaughan (ankle), Brown (knee), Bendtner (ineligible), Kilgallon (ankle), Angeleri (knee), Bramble (calf), Gordon (knee).

Random Facts:

Arsenal have lost one of their last 13 games against Sunderland.

Robin van Persie has only every started one Premier League game at the Stadium of Light but did score twice in a 3-0 Carling Cup win up there in October 2005.

Arsenal have had 11 shots cleared off the line this season. The highest in the Premier League.

Sunderland have kept three clean-sheets in a row in the Premier League.

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