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Sunderland v Arsenal: The Away Tour Starts Here

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The Nicklas Bendtner Shield
Saturday, February 11, 2012
The Stadium of Light, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, The Northeast
TV: Fox Soccer Plus,

Arsenal contest their second final in a week, playing Sunderland in the Nicklas Bendtner Shield. The winner of this prestigious trophy will get two valuable prizes, one being three points, and the other being a shield from Nicklas Bendtner. It's also the start of 3 very important away trips, with Milan on Wednesday and Sunderland again next Saturday in the FA Cup forming the rest of the away tour. Tomorrow's game, however, is the most important: If Arsenal get a poor result against Sunderland, the fourth place challenge becomes even more of a challenge, with just 13 cup finals league games left after this weekend.

Sunderland away hasn't been an easy game for Arsenal in quite a few years; in 2008/09, they drew with a last minute Cesc Fabregas header, in 2009/10 they lost 1-0, and last season Arsenal gave up a last minute goal to Darren Bent. Sunderland started the season poorly, but since Martin O'Neill has replaced Steve Bruce, they have been the Premier League's form team, beating Manchester City 1-0 at the Stadium of Light and being rather unlucky to lose away to Tottenham and Chelsea. O'Neill is a manger who has frustrated Arsene Wenger's team in the past, and tomorrow could be no different. Under O'Neill they have played fewer passes and have become more direct, while remaining very well organised at the back. O'Neill has often frustrated Arsenal by playing counter attacking football with quick wingers and front players, and with Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean they have two of the form players in the Premier League. Sessegnon, playing just off the front man, has been Sunderland's best creative player, with 7 assists, and has also been an excellent dribbler while chipping in with 6 goals. Arsenal can be prone to counter attacks through the middle, and he should be Sunderland's biggest threat. McClean has been a revelation after not playing for Steve Bruce, showing a good range of crossing and dribbling skills, and will also be a threat. Up front, Sunderland have the returning Frazier Campbell, who may not play after just returning from a year out, while Connor Wickham is a more traditional number 9. Sunderland could also play Ji Dong-Won up front, but he is more likely to be a substitute. One thing that could work into Arsenal's favour is that Sunderland played 120 mintues on Wednesday night against Middlesbrough, and Martin O'Neill is famous for not rotating players. Having had an easy game last Saturday, Arsenal should be fresher than their counterparts.

Arsenal also have the option of rotating their squad ahead of the crunch run of fixtures in the coming weeks. Kieran Gibbs is available for selection again, though reports indicate that he may only be on the bench. Marouane Chamakh has returned from the African Cup of Nations, and Thierry Henry can only play in one more Premier League game. Aaron Ramsey could replace Tomas Rosicky in the centre of midfield, and Arsene Wenger will have a big decision to make on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The winger has played in Arsenal's last 4 games, and with Wenger not wanting to overuse Oxlade-Chamberlain, he may rest him ahead of the trip to AC Milan. If that is the case, Andrey Arshavin is the obvious candidate to replace him, but the Russian has not been seen since being booed on against Manchester United. Thierry Henry is a less likely candidate to replace the Ox; despite Wenger saying Henry could play from the left, he has shown a tendency to drift to the middle with Robin van Persie, leaving the whole of the left to Thomas Vermaelen. That unbalance almost cost Arsenal against Bolton, and it'd be surprising to see Henry play on the left. Francis Coquelin impressed against Blackburn from right back, and could be given a role in the midfield to rest Alex Song.

Projected lineup: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen; Coquelin, Ramsey, Arteta; Walcott, Henry, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Arsenal jump to an early lead, Thierry Henry scoring from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross. The Gunners continue to control the game until the second half when James McClean morphs into American office superhero Jim McClean, dribbling past Bacary Sagna and causing Wojciech Szczesny to go on a crazy run, leaving Frazier Campbell with a tap in. Arsenal bring their own hero, Robin van Persie, on, and he scores after an Aaron Ramsey throughball plays in Theo Walcott, who, despite being one on one with Simon Mingolet, cuts back to van Persie, who chips the keeper.
Sunderland 1-2 Arsenal