Arsenal Preview (H) - February 9
SUNDERLAND host Arsenal at the Stadium of Light this Saturday with the Gunners unbeaten in their last four in all competitions.
It`s been a season of complete inconsistency for Arsene Wenger`s side, who have never strung together more than three consecutive wins; only achieving that feat on two occasions.
After spending comparatively big last summer to bring in experienced, proven players such as Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla, Wenger could perhaps be excused for suggesting that his policy of buying youngsters to mould into world-beaters is still the best way forward.
Not that that is a slight on any of the Frenchman`s big summer additions, but when you consider the relative cost compared to the club`s recent summer outlays, a battle for a Champions League spot hardly seems value for money, especially as it`s considered a trophy at the Emirates Stadium.
It would probably be a lot easier to simply suggest that the loss of the prolific Robin van Persie has had a bigger impact on the club`s season than any other factor.
The simple fact of the matter is that when you take a player out of your side who had scored 96 goals in 149 games, the side will be weaker. That the 29 year-old Dutchman has bagged 22 league and cup goals in 25 starts for Manchester United suggests RVP would have been the difference again this season for the north London outfit.
Former Montpellier forward Giroud appears to be making a decent fist of replacing van Persie, having already scored 14 goals in all competitions for his new club.
Signed from last season`s Ligue 1 Champions for a £13m fee, Giroud took seven games to score his first goal in English football, that coming against Coventry City in the Capital One Cup.
However, since then the 6`4 French international has looked increasingly at home in an Arsenal shirt, second only to Theo Walcott in terms of his league goal output.
The 26 year-old has 14 full French caps, and has scored twice for his country, with one of those goals coming in Spain earlier this year as les Bleus take a creditable 1-1 draw from the European and World Champions.
Walcott is another who has undeniably upped his game in the light of van Persie`s departure, enjoying comfortably his most prolific season in front of goal for the Gunners, bagging 18 in all competitions already.
Moved centrally more frequently and with a brand-new five year contract finally secured, the 23 year-old has shown more end product than ever before this term.
Adamant that his future lies as a central striker, Walcott seems hell-bent on proving his detractors wrong this term and has made a decent fist of doing so; proving that he can be an alternative option to the more traditional centre-forwards at the club in Giroud and Podolski.
In midfield, the return of Jack Wilshere after a long spell on the sidelines has been one of few positives this season.
The former Luton Town youngster was England`s Man-of-the-Match against Brazil in midweek and quickly appears to have found his feet at the highest level following two seasons of injury concerns.
With 23 appearances for club and country this term, the 21 year-old dynamo has showed no ill effects of the past two seasons, and has even enjoyed his best season in front of goal, with strikes against Montpellier and Swansea City in the Champions League and FA Cup.
Still four match shy of his half century of Premier League starts for the Gunners, Wilshere is another of Wenger`s increasingly-British core to have committed his long-term future to the club this season, inking a five-year contract towards to the end of 2012.
Arsenal have a considerable injury list as ever with Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramey, Francis Coquelin and Walcott all expected to recover from knocks in time to face the Lads.
Thomas Vermaelen, Kieran Gibbs and Lukas Fabianski will all miss out though.
Sunderland are without Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown (both knee), but Carlos Cuellar could return in place of Titus Bramble, or at the very least, take up a spot on the bench.
Danny Rose is in contention for a start after playing 45 minutes against Reading last weekend meaning either Jack Colback or David Vaughan would miss out.
James McClena is also a doubt for the Black Cats after injuring his ankle on international duty.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Gardner, O`Shea (c), Cuellar, Rose; Larsson, N`Diaye, Colback, Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher.
Arsenal: Sczcesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Diaby, Arteta (c); Walcott, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Giroud.
Referee: Mr A Taylor.