Sunderland v Arsenal: Chris Young’s Big Match Verdict

Craig Gardner leads the way in training as Sunderland prepare to face Arsenal tomorrow. Picture by Kevin Brady
Craig Gardner leads the way in training as Sunderland prepare to face Arsenal tomorrow. Picture by Kevin Brady
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ENGLAND’S surprisingly enthralling friendly victory over Brazil on Wednesday night produced an ominous reminder of Arsenal’s attacking riches.

Arsene Wenger’s side may have become an inferior imitation of their former glories, where growing inconsistency could well bring a conclusion to 15 successive seasons of Champions League qualification.

But in Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, there are two weapons capable of summoning the grey clouds over Wearside tomorrow, prior to a fortnight’s break from Premier League action.

The manner in which Wilshere drove through midfield with a nonchalant body swerve against the Brazilians, demonstrated that the 21-year-old has rediscovered his sharpness after a miserable 18 months on the treatment table.

Although Walcott still suffers from Blind Alley-itus, he is bursting with confidence too and looks a far more potent force by being re-positioned 10 yards infield.

Both will cause Sunderland concerns tomorrow, particularly Walcott, against a Black Cats central defence that is hardly blessed with pace.

There is a big “but” with Arsenal though.

Wenger simply doesn’t have sufficient players of a similar calibre to Walcott and Wilshere, certainly not on a consistent basis, and that should give Sunderland hope.

Yes, the Black Cats have under-performed in their last two games, even if they could easily have walked away with a four-point haul rather than one.

But against Manchester City just over a month ago, Sunderland showed they are capable of soaking up pressure against one of the big boys and then exploiting the exposed gaps at the other end on the break.

Arsenal’s defence is by no means as capable as City’s, and with centre-halves Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny both injury doubts tomorrow, Martin O’Neill must surely be tempted to hand Danny Graham his first Sunderland start.

It was a big ask to throw the £5million frontman straight into the fray at Reading after just one light training session with his new team-mates.

But Graham has now enjoyed a full week at the Academy of Light and the prospect of a partnership with Steven Fletcher is O’Neill’s main selection dilemma tomorrow.

Fletcher undoubtedly needs more numbers around him. Sunderland couldn’t get out of their own half in the opening 20 minutes at Reading, primarily because there was such a huge gap between the Scot and the rest.

If Sunderland were facing a mid-table peer, then Graham would be almost-certain to start, yet it would represent a significant throw of the dice to play two strikers against an Arsenal side who maintain possession so comfortably with their midfield numbers.

Although Fletcher could operate in a deeper role behind Graham, Sunderland would still be fielding two out-and-out strikers.

Stephane Sessegnon’s place in the starting XI is vulnerable though, as are those of Jack Colback, David Vaughan and Alfred N’Diaye.

O’Neill will doubtless include fit-again Danny Rose at left-back, freeing Colback to compete with Vaughan and N’Diaye for the central spots.

Lee Cattermole has an outside chance of being in contention too, although after playing just 15 minutes of first-team football since November, it would be a risk to throw the skipper immediately back into the fray for a game where Sunderland’s players will be left breathless.

Sunderland do need an improvement from their midfield though. If O’Neill’s side concede possession as carelessly as they have in the last two games, they don’t stand a prayer.

The defeat at Reading served as a reminder that the Black Cats are not completely out of the woods yet regarding the relegation scrap and that 40-point mark remains the haven of comfort – even if a successful survival tally is likely to be less than that hallowed figure.

But if Sunderland can reverse two forgettable performances, then Arsenal’s vulnerability presents the opportunity to reach the landmark of 30.

Verdict: Draw