Arsenal got back to winning ways in the Premier League last week with an emphatic 7-1 victory at home to Blackburn. After three defeats in a row in the league it was a welcome victory, and it kept Arsenal firmly in the race for fourth place. They now need to kick on and put a few good performances and victories together to show that they are capable of finishing fourth.
They face a very tough trip to Sunderland later today, and a win in that game would be a real sign that things are looking up for Arsenal. Since Martin O'Neill took over the reins at Sunderland they have taken more Premier League points than any other team. In 10 games they have taken 22 points, and progressed to the last 16 of the FA Cup too.
They have won their last three league games without conceding a goal, and they look like they are capable of making a late run to challenge for a top four spot. There are already four teams in the hunt for fourth place, but if Sunderland continue at their current pace they might just have a say in that battle. Their defence has been their strongest point so far with only Manchester City and Liverpool conceding less goals than them.
It sounds like a daunting task for an Arsenal team that has already lost six of their 12 away league games this season. There are a few factors counting in Arsenal's favour though, and they need to take advantage of them.
For a start Arsenal are the third highest scorers away from home in the Premier League this season, and they have the top scorer in the league in their team too. Robin van Persie is a class above any other striker in the league, and Sunderland will have to be at their very best to stop him scoring. His hat trick against Blackburn last week was fantastic, and he is a threat every single time he gets the ball.
Arsenal have had a week off since their victory over Blackburn, but Sunderland have had to play an FA Cup replay against local rivals Middlesbrough. That game went to extra time before Sunderland eventually emerged victorious, and funnily enough they will face Arsenal in the next round. That game will be played next weekend, but Arsenal have a midweek to trip to AC Milan to contend with first.
Hopefully the Sunderland players will be just a little bit tired after their exertions on Wednesday night, and Arsenal can take advantage of that. Sunderland's defence has been very good, but if Arsenal can put them under enough pressure early on they might just crack. Arsenal came out of the blocks very quickly against Blackburn last week, and more of the same is needed today.
I can't see Arsene Wenger making too many changes from the team that beat Blackburn last week, but I think Aaron Ramsey might come back in instead of Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky played well last week, but Ramsey is the first choice in the attacking role in midfield, and I expect him to play. I would also expect Bacary Sagna to play from the start after he sat out most of last week's game on his road to recovery.
Other than that I don't see any other changes, but I think Kieran Gibbs might make the bench and maybe even get a few minutes towards the end. He has had plenty of injury problems throughout his short Arsenal career, but hopefully he has put them all behind him now. Wouldn't it be strange to see Arsenal play with two actual full-backs in their team at some stage.
Arsenal are good enough to beat any team, and if they turn on the style Sunderland will struggle to cope with them. I'm sure Sunderland will work really hard to close Arsenal down, as all Martin O'Neill teams do and Arsenal will need to do the same to them. It could make for a very tight game, but good players come to the fore in tight situations.
The form shown by RVP, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Theo Walcott was excellent last week, and more of the same from them is a must for Arsenal. I always feel RVP is at his best when the ball is cut back to him by the wide players, and Arsenal will do well if they can get both of them in behind the Sunderland defence. Arsenal's attack can be formidable when it's on song, and it needs to be today.
The real problems this season for Arsenal have been the amount of goals they have conceded, and they need to defend better as a team. It's not just the back four and the goalkeeper who have to defend, but the whole team have to play their part. If they can all stick to their tasks and concentrate for the entire 90 minutes it won't be easy for Sunderland to score.
Sunderland have some very dangerous players in their team, and James McLean and Stephane Sessegnon are in great form at the moment. The return of Fraizer Campbell from his long injury has also been a boost for them, and he will have to be closely watched too. The easiest way for Arsenal to keep those players quiet is to keep the ball, and score a few goals too.
It's the start of a very busy week for Arsenal with the Champions League trip to Milan on Wednesday night, and then Sunderland again in the FA Cup next week. A victory today with be the perfect start to that week, and hopefully wins against Milan and Sunderland again will follow. It's never dull as an Arsenal fan, but the coming week is going to be even more interesting than usual.
With Liverpool facing a trip to United, Newcastle traveling to Spurs, and Chelsea playing at Everton there is a chance for Arsenal to end the day in fourth place. I would be delighted with a win over Sunderland, and Arsenal closing in on the teams above them, but it won't be easy. A draw would not be a disaster, but it could be a bad week if Arsenal start it with a defeat.
The team has been short of confidence recently, and a defeat could be really bad for that brittle confidence. I'm staying positive though, and predicting a 2-1 win for Arsenal with RVP again being the star performer.
I'm sure it will be a very close game, and the ability to take chances will be crucial. I was at the reverse fixture in October and a brace from RVP won the game for Arsenal, after Seb Larsson had scored a superb free kick for Sunderland to equalise. Blackburn scored a similar free kick last week, and Arsenal need to be aware of Larsson's ability from dead balls. It's imperative that they don't give away free kicks within 30 yards of their own goal.
That's it for today.
Here's a look at Arsenal's 3-0 win over Sunderland in 2001-02.
See You nTomorrow.