Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland can match Gunners

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WHEN Thierry Henry last graced the Stadium of Light at the end of the gruelling 2005-06 campaign, the Frenchman received a standing ovation from all corners of the ground.

It was Wearside’s recognition for one of the Premier League’s all-time greats, plying his trade in a cocksure Arsenal side that was similarly easy on the eye.

But there will be no amorous or envious glances towards the opposition tomorrow, for the gaping chasm with Henry, right, and co has been reduced to a slither of a crack.

Such has been Martin O’Neill’s injection of self belief into Sunderland’s ranks, that the fostering of a winning mentality presents no barrier towards the Black Cats registering successive victories from their Gunners double header.

Arsenal are notoriously brittle away from home, highlighted by an almost two-month wait for a victory on the road, while Arsene Wenger’s team selection for both Premier League and FA Cup encounters will inevitably be influenced by Wednesday’s Champions League trip to AC Milan.

The one hindrance lying in Sunderland’s path is the after-effects of their midweek trip to Middlesbrough and the price paid for a place in the fifth round of the cup.

O’Neill has not been a big practitioner of squad rotation so far during his Sunderland reign – the bulk of his changes have been dictated by injuries or in last Saturday’s case, caution over asking too much of Fraizer Campbell.

But the likes of Ahmed Elmohamady, Connor Wickham, David Meyler and deadline day arrivals Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos will inevitably come into O’Neill’s thinking as he plots his team selection for tomorrow.

Sunderland’s fatigue factor will remain somewhat of an unknown until kick-off, yet James McClean and Seb Larsson particularly, looked leggy at the Riverside and may benefit from a breather.

We have been here before though.

Think back to early January when Sunderland produced a Herculean effort to beat Manchester City and then benefited from just 48 hours rest before travelling to Wigan.

Did Sunderland suffer? No, the adrenaline and momentum from the sweet taste of victory carried them through and they romped to a 4-1 victory over the Latics.

Sunderland can’t be discounted from producing a similar response, even if O’Neill, as is perhaps the likeliest outcome, names the same XI who triumphed on Teesside.

Arsenal are a different proposition to Wigan though and despite the rumblings of discontent, still romped to a 7-1 victory over 10-man Blackburn last weekend.

Arguably, no other team in the top flight can boast a striker as dangerous as Robin van Persie either, as Sunderland found to their cost at the Emirates in October.

Aside from the opening 10 minutes in North London, Sunderland were more than a match for the Gunners only for van Persie to produce that moment of magic with a scorching 25-yard free-kick.

That has been the pattern of the season – van Persie continually Arsenal’s saviour after finally ridding himself of the injury problems which seemed intent on curbing his potential.

The problem for Arsenal has been van Persie’s supporting cast, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky struggling to provide sufficient quality for Arsenal to remain a favourite for Champions League qualification.

Matters have improved with the introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain though, with the former Southampton man’s pace hardly the ideal opponent for Sunderland’s weary legs.

Arsenal are no pushovers, yet neither are they infallible, particularly if Fraizer Campbell and Stephane Sessegnon can prey upon the obvious flaws in the visiting defence.

Sessegnon’s recovery from the cramp he sustained at the Riverside is crucial to Sunderland’s chances, in a game which should prove a decent barometer of how far the Black Cats can go this season under O’Neill’s stewardship.

Win and Sunderland move to within four points of the Gunners. Lose and the eighth position they currently find themselves in could be the limit of their ambitions.

Verdict: Draw