Arsenal must play Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott against Sunderland
Arsenal have backed themselves into a bit of a corner, but that's still a far cry better than they have done in previous seasons when we've needed some last-second heroics or results to break our way elsewhere before claiming a Champions League spot. Despite our recent setbacks, we still have a gilt-edged glimpse at finishing second and should certainly feel like third is ours to lose.
Standing in our way is a Sunderland squad struggling to stave off relegation and a cauldron of complicated results. If we can make the most of our Wednesday clash with the Black Cats, we'll have third in the hand with second lurking in the bush. That might sound borderline inappropriate, but bear with me.
Win over Sunderland, and we're third, guaranteed, with an eye on second. While I hate to get so grubby as this, we do have to consider Sunderland's position. They're just three points from the drop-zone with trips to the Emirates and Stamford Bridge to close out the season. 'Twixt the two, Sunderland have to figure that their best chance at staying up will come through finding a draw from one if not both matches.
Hull, losers of their last three, trail Sunderland by three points and would have to beat Manchester United to keep alive their hopes of staying up, which brings us back to Sunderland and their trip to Stamford Bridge. Playing Chelsea is like taking shooting practice against a brick wall, only one of your shots ricochets away and the guy who offers to retrieve it ends up juggling a bit to show you that he too is a baller, but he trips and falls and, out of the hedges.
Mike Dean's head pops up and he points to the spot and Eden Hazard, who just happens to be walking by, slots it home and all this time that you thought you were taking shots against a brick wall, you were actually playing Chelsea. So it goes with Sunderland. They have to know, Fàbregas's moment of madness and ensuing red card aside, that winning or even drawing against Chelsea is a bridge too far. The Black Cats' best hope then lies in their trip to the Emirates.
Needing just a point to secure another season in the EPL, we can probably count on them to sit back and defend in numbers, much as Swansea did last weekend. They might even harbour grander ambitions, considering that we've struggled in our last two outings while they've won away over Everton and again at home against Southampton, but their best chance lies in securing a draw.
With a number of key players out – Ricardo Alvarez, Jordi Gomez, Jack Rodwell, and Wes Brown – manager Dick Advocaat has some dilemmas to sort out, especially in defence. Whether Sunderland set up to nick a point or get a bit more ambitious, then, there's enough discombobulation in back to offer us some openings.
At our end, key players like Alexis and Cazorla turned in disappointing performances against United, and it's likely that one or both needs a rest. This might then give us a chance to try out a Ramsey-Coquelin pairing ahead of the by-now standard back four of Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Bellerín, resting Cazorla while restoring Ramsey to that box-to-box role he thrive in so much a season ago.
Bear with me for this next one: Wilshere plays ahead of them in the 10-spot, pushing Özil wide left, resting Alexis while inviting Özil to ghost towards the middle to combine with Ramsey and Wilshere. On the right, then, we bring on Walcott, who offered a hint of the threat he can pose through the own-goal he caused against Man Utd.
There are few players who, just by being on the pitch, can alter an opponent's set-up. Walcott, on his day, is one of those players. Behind him, of course, Bellerín might have to play more cautiously, but he did show against Man Utf that he has the pace and tenacity to defend and recover from advanced positions up the pitch.
Long story short? We simply have to win. Sunderland might be struggling to stay up, but we should harbour no compunction about smashing them, and smash them we must. A win claims third place outright while keeping the pressure on Man City, who end their season with a visit from tenacious, ambitious Southampton on Sunday.
- Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal (25.10.2014)
- Arsenal 4-1 Sunderland (22.02.2014)
- Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal (14.09.2013)
- Arsenal have scored at least two goals in their last three matches against Sunderland.
- Arsenal have not lost a Prem match against Sunderland in their last ten.
- The two clubs first met on 5 November 1904, a 0-0 draw.
Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, and Debuchy are all doubtful.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Ospina; Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Bellerín; Coquelin, Ramsey; Özil, Wilshere, Walcott; Giroud.
I'm looking at Wilshere and Walcott to remind the doubters just what they're capable of, with Wilshere storming the middle of the pitch and Walcott running amok all across the final third, as we see off Sunderland comfortably.
Arsenal 3-0 Sunderland.
What do you think? Can Sunderland find a way to nick a point, or will we rediscover the form that abandoned us against Swansea?