Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Sunderland - Match Preview

Per Mertesacker

“It's back to the Premier League for us,” said Arsène Wenger. "There is a mental adjustment we have to make because we have played in three different competitions in one week.

“But we have to get the negative vibes out after the last game and get into the Premier League again. The challenges that we have ahead are massive, but extremely exciting as well, so it's important that we are not down because of the result against Bayern Munich.”

Arsenal’s appetite must now return to the bread-and-butter of the league.

A rapid run of big names in big games was supposed to define their season.

It hasn’t.

Nothing is clearer, nothing is decided; Wenger’s side are still in all three competitions.

The most precarious is clearly the Champions League after the 2-0 defeat against Bayern Munich on Wednesday in the knockout round first leg. Despite the reputation of the German champions, the first half-hour of that game and victory last year both suggest the manager is right to retain a measure of optimism.

"The challenges that we have ahead are massive, but extremely exciting as well, so it's important that we are not down because of the result against Bayern Munich"

In the FA Cup, a 2-1 win over Liverpool with a much-changed side renewed belief and, crucially, the sixth-round tie against an admittedly-tough Everton side takes place at Emirates.

Before that win, there was the 0-0 draw with Manchester United; perhaps a mundane but necessary antidote to the horrible 5-1 defeat at Liverpool that started so-called ‘decisive’ run.

That was billed as the start of the slide for Arsenal. It was not.

Wenger’s men will arrive at Emirates Stadium on Saturday one point adrift of leaders Chelsea. Before those back-to-back cup games with Everton and Bayern, Arsenal have Sunderland (h) and Stoke (a) - exactly the sort of league games in which dropped points can cost titles.

After they are played, there will be only 10 games left in the competition. The run-in will have arrived.

Meanwhile, Gus Poyet is in the middle of minor miracle at the Stadium of Light. Apart from leading them to the Capital One Cup final next weekend, Sunderland would be seventh in the table if the Premier League had started when the Uruguayan took over. In the season-long table, they are third from bottom but Wenger believes they are heading one way.

“It looks to me as if they are on a trend that is upwards,” he said. “It is quite amazing in this Premier League because all the teams you thought had absolutely no chance a few weeks ago like Crystal Palace and Sunderland are suddenly are getting out of the relegation zone.

“Poyet has done well. He has bought a style of play and a confidence back in the team. They have become a good side so let's not be fooled by their position in the table. They are a strong team if you look at their recent results, it is a dangerous team.”

That is especially true away from home where they have registered three wins and three draws in their last six games when their previous eight had yielded just one point.

Vito Mannone is a vital part of the Sunderland success story. The Italian keeper was on the bench for the opening months of the season but injury allowed him to take the gloves from Keiren Westwood and he has never looked like letting them go. He was Sunderland’s hero in the penalty shoot-out victory at Old Trafford that took them to the Capital One Cup final. With Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski in front of him, it is a chance he would never have got at Arsenal.

Team News

Arsenal: Gibbs (buttock), Vermaelen (leg), Ramsey (thigh), Walcott (knee), Diaby (knee)

Sunderland: Fletcher (doubt – Achilles), Cuellar (hip), Brown (suspended), Westwood (shoulder)

“That's the problem he faced here,” said Wenger. “I sold him because of that. At some stage you cannot block the career of the player. I'm very proud of what he's doing because I kept him here when he had a trial at the age of 16 because I saw something in him. That's coming out now which is of course very satisfying. He is a football man, he loves the game and I was always convinced that he would be a great goalkeeper.”

As popular as Mannone was at Arsenal, there is no room for sentiment.

If the much-hyped ‘decisive periods’ do not live up to their billing this season, then the occasions of less glamour become more important.

With all due respect, Arsenal’s next two fixtures probably fall into that category. But the intensity must not drop.

The team must treat Sunderland on Saturday like Bayern in midweek.

Same approach, same spirit but, please, a very different result.

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