The Emirates Stadium, London
March 5, 2011, 15:00 GMT
Arsenal return to Premier League action after a heart-breaking Carling Cup final followed by a resounding thumping of Leyton Orient at home, to book a quarter-final date with Manchester United in the FA Cup. With Manchester United losing to Chelsea on Monday, the Gunners have a huge opportunity to close the gap on the league leaders to a mere point, and also have a comparatively easier run-up to the end of the league compared to the Red Devils. However, the injury jinx has reared its ugly head once again, as Wenger will miss the services of Van Persie, Fabregas and Song for the Sunderland clash; they join Walcott and Vermaelen on the sidelines. One silver lining in the dark cloud of injuries could be the potential inclusion of Aaron Ramsey in the starting line-up; the Welshman has returned to the squad after a successful loan spell at his home club Cardiff City.
The Black Cats are suffering a drought of points in the League, having lost all their four games in the month of February. It is no coincidence that the slump began after the sale of Darren Bent to Aston Villa, and with Danny Welbeck on the sidelines for some weeks, Steve Bruce has only Asamoah Gyan to lead the line; however, the Ghanaian is still adapting to the league, and Kieran Richardson has to be relied on to score the goals. They are unfortunate to come up against an Arsenal side, which will be intent on edging closer to the top of the table. Sunderland will try to play for a draw here. One can expect the visitors to play like how Birmingham did in the Carling Cup final, but the home advantage could be a deciding factor in Arsenal’s quest for a victory this time.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Just when fans thought that they would finally see the first team together for quite a while, the team has lost its key players one by one, in a rather frenetic February. Walcott and Cesc suffered an ankle and a hamstring injury respectively in the Stoke game; the former is a certain absentee for the Barcelona clash, while the captain is fighting fit for the game on his home turf. To exacerbate the injury woes, Van Persie tore his knee ligaments during his goal scoring stunt in the Carling Cup and Alex Song picked up a knock on his knee. Wenger has confirmed that the duo and Cesc will not feature in the squad against Sunderland, but has hinted at the possibility of Ramsey playing in this crunch encounter tomorrow. Koscielny is fit for the game after a minor hamstring strain. Rosicky had a mild concussion in the Orient game, but should be available for selection. Diaby had 60 odd minutes under his belt in the midweek FA cup replay, and will mostly be slotted into the midfield in place of Song.
Sunderland have always been a difficult team for the Gunners to deal with, as evinced by the reverse fixture between the two teams last year, where Darren Bent secured a vital draw for the team in the dying minutes of the game. With players like Muntari, Malbranque, Henderson and Richardson in the midfield, Arsenal have their task cut out in the center of the pitch; Wilshere and Diaby/Denilson will have to keep a tight leash on Muntari and Sessegnon, while Sagna and Clichy will need to keep Malbranque and Richardson quiet on the wings. With Sunderland playing a 4-5-1 formation, the center back duo of Djourou and Squillaci will have to keep a check on the wily Asamoah. In Van Persie’s absence, Chamakh could be given a start and Bendtner would come on as a substitute, with the Dane more likely to start in the Barcelona game on Tuesday. Nasri, Rosicky and Arshavin will start, and Ramsey could come on as a substitute.
Probable Starting XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy, Wilshere, Diaby, Rosicky, Nasri, Arshavin, Chamakh.
After their win over Blackpool in January, it has all gone downhill for the men in red and white. They have now gone four games without a win in the League, and Steve Bruce will be looking to arrest the slide. The untimely injury to Danny Welbeck, who has been a revelation as a loan signing, coupled with the sale of Darren Bent, has considerably weakened the striking arsenal that Bruce has at his disposal. Gyan now leads the line, with some able support from Kieran Richardson. Michael Turner, Boudewijn Zenden and Lee Cattermole sit out through injury, but Sunderland have adequate replacements in their respective positions. The Black Cats could bank on a typically physical English football strategy to interrupt Arsenal’s passing game, by crowding out the midfield and relying on set pieces and counter-attacks to score goals.
Titus Bramble and John Mensah will feature at center back, and they will need to take care of either Chamakh or Bendtner, both of whom are physical and good in the air. Onuoha and Bardsley will need to deal with Nasri and Arshavin, as well as the overlapping fullbacks, when the two creative players decide to cut in. The midfield will have to put in a tireless box to box display to assist the defense and also contribute to the offense, and they have the perfect players for this kind of role in Henderson, Richardson and Malbranque. Bruce will look to congest the midfield and cut supplies to the forward line, forcing Arsenal’s forward trio to drop deep and try to split open the defense; the tactic has worked against Arsenal more often than once, and Sunderland are capable of ending their losing streak in this game.
Probable Starting XI: Gordon, Onuoha, Bramble, Mensah,Bardsley, Sessegnon, Henderson, Richardson, Muntari, Malbranque, Gyan.
1. Sunderland have drawn two and lost seven of their last nine games away at Arsenal.
2. Arsenal have six clean sheets in their last eight games.
3. Sunderland have won only six of 51 away games in London.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
The teenage prodigy has been a vital cog in Arsenal’s midfield this season, and has earned the admiration of fans and players alike with his mature performances on the field. Against a tough Sunderland midfield pack, Wilshere will be banked upon to break down their stranglehold in the center of the pitch and contribute offensively whenever possible.
Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland
Although Arsenal will be less creative without Cesc Fabregas in the center; however, the home support, the availability of Arshavin and Nasri, and the presence of Djourou in defense will enable the Gunners to overcome all odds and breathe closer down Manchester United’s necks.
TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST