Saturday, 22 February 2014

Arsenal v Sunderland Preview

It's been a tough two weeks for Arsenal with four huge games in a row and now it's back to the bread and butter of the Premier League with a home game against Sunderland. Those four games might not have gone as well as had been hoped but they're only one point off the summit of the league and through to the quarter finals of the FA Cup with a home game against Everton. The Champions League is a different matter though and qualification for the last eight in that is going to be a huge task after losing 2-0 at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg.

Despite that loss there were real positives in the game for Arsenal who performed very well in attack until they were reduced to 10 men before half time. They had to defend for their lives in the second half against the best club side in the world and did so admirably. The second goal so late on was a killer blow which will be hard to recover from, but Arsenal won 2-0 away to them at the same stage last season and are capable of doing so again. If they score first in that game Arsenal could cause a real upset and they're not totally written off quite yet.

I was very impressed with Yaya Sanogo who led the line very well and showed he has an awful lot to offer the team. If he can put his awful injury record behind him he looks like Arsene Wenger has unearthed another cut price gem. I was also impressed with Jack Wilshere who rolled his sleeves up and did some really hard work with only Mathieu Flamini covering more ground than him on the night. 

There's no need to say too much about Flamini as games like the Bayern one were made for a player of his battling qualities. It's a shame their second goal came when Muller lost him in the Arsenal box, but he shouldn't have been marking a central striker. Laurent Koscielny had been caught upfield in true Thomas Vermaelen style and he should not have abandoned his post so late in the game with the team barely hanging on.

At the same stage last season Arsenal were caught with a late killer blow as they over committed in attack and lessons need to be learned. I've no problem with Koscielny going up for free kicks but he has to pick the right time and place and that stage of the game clearly was not the right one. He's a great defender and I have no doubt his desire to get back into the game was what saw him go forward, but Arsenal paid a heavy price.

Anyway the Bayern tie can be put aside for a few weeks as Arsenal concentrate on keeping pace at the top of the league. They have an excellent defensive record at home since the opening day defeat to Villa and have only conceded one goal in their last nine home league games. Everton scored that goal to take a point late on and both Chelsea and United came for 0-0 draws and got them, but otherwise 2-0 to the Arsenal has become a familiar scoreline at home.

Sunderland had done well to climb out of the relegation zone recently, but they have dropped back into it after losing to Hull and having their last game postponed. They have done very well away from home recently and they are unbeaten in their last six games away from home. They won three of those games and drew the other three and they kept clean sheets in three of them too.

One of the reasons their season has turned around has been the performances of Vito Mannone in goal. He had to wait to get a place in the team and didn't play in the first nine games of the season, but once he got his chance he grabbed it with both hands. He has started 15 league games since then  and kept clean sheets in seven of them which is very good for a team at the wrong end of the table.

His performances have played a key role in Sunderland reaching the Capital One Cup final and the quarter finals of the FA Cup too. He spent eight years at Arsenal and played very few games in that time, but he always gave his best when called upon. It's great to see him living up to his potential and I love seeing him playing so well, but I hope he doesn't play quite so well today.

From an Arsenal perspective I'm sure there will be a few changes from the Bayern game as some of the players must be tired after their exertions with 10 men for over 50 minutes. They have also played four games in 11 days against some very good teams and their batteries will need to be recharged. At least the team have a week to recharge those batteries before they face a trip to Stoke next week.

By the sounds of what the boss has said Olivier Giroud will play from the start and hopefully he will be as adept at scoring at home as has been away from home recently. I don't know if he was left out of the side for the last two games because of his indiscretion, but Sanogo has certainly given the boss another option with his performances in those games. He must be a little tired though as he has just returned from a lengthy injury lay off and he could probably do with a rest.

With Kieran Gibbs injured there is no doubt that Nacho Monreal will play and he will be given the task of stopping Adam Johnson. He has been in very good form recently as he attempts to get into the World Cup squad for England this summer. He will be a handful for Monreal, but Arsenal should have enough of the ball to ensure his chances are limited. 

Mikel Artera will be available to play as his suspension was only for the midweek Champions League game and I would expect him to come back into the midfield. I'm not sure if he will form an axis with Flamini or if the boss will choose one over the other to include more attacking players in the team. If that's the cars I think Flamini might be the player to be included, but he did cover an awful lot of ground on Wednesday night.

I thought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a knock against Bayern but it appears he will be available and hopefully he will play too. I would be surprised if Santi Cazorla didn't start as he was the player to be sacrificed when Wojciech Szczesny was sent off and he will still be fresh. If Jack Wilshere is up to it I think he has to keep his place too after putting in such a good display, but Tomas Rosicky could easily deputise for either of them.

There might not be too many changes so and there could be as little as two if the players are up to playing again. If they can show the attitude and commitment they showed against Bayern there aren't many teams that can keep them out. They played like at that at home to Napoli in the Champions League and Liverpool in the league and won both of those games convincingly. 

Far too often recently Arsenal have started very slowly and only gradually come into games, but the way they started against Bayern is the way they need to approach games for the rest of the season. There are only 12 league games to go and they have every chance of winning the league if they approach those games in the right way. I think they can win the league if they take 30 points from those games, but it won't be an easy task. There are some very difficult fixtures in those 12 games and plenty of potential pitfalls. 

Sunderland have had a go at teams a little more as the weeks go by and Gus Poyet's influence on the team increases. I hope they have a go at Arsenal because that could be just what Arsenal need to find spaces for Mesut Ozil to play the pacey Chamberlain in. Ozil has taken a lot of criticism from various quarters recently and I think we could be about to see a very big performance from him. At least if Arsenal get a penalty he won't be first in line to take it if Arteta and Giroud are out there.

I'm plumping for an Arsenal win by a couple of goals and hoping Everton do them a favour earlier in the day away to Chelsea. If Everton can stop Chelsea winning there's a chance for Arsenal to go back on top of the league and that would be a huge boost for them after the disappointment of the Bayern game. It may be a long shot but I think Everton have a chance of getting something from the game and Chelsea might just have their minds on their upcoming Champions League game.

Even if Everton don't do Arsenal a favour it's still a must win game to keep pace with Chelsea before that tricky trip to Stoke next week. There's another run of really tough games coming up and Arsenal need to take six points off Sunderland and Stoke before they start into those games. Hopefully they can do just that and keep their chances of taking a trophy this season alive.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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