Arsenal try to bounce back against Cats

Arsenal faces what looks to be the perfect opponent this weekend as

it seeks to overcome a demoralizing midweek defeat and stay in

contention for the Premier League title.

Bad goalkeeping and unhappiness over a refereeing decision

dominated Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at FC Porto in the Champions League

but the Gunners get the chance to bounce back Saturday against a

Sunderland side without a win from its past 12 league matches.

And if Arsenal needed extra motivation at Emirates Stadium,

the players need only note that Sunderland’s last Premier League

victory was the 1-0 result against Arsenal in mid-November.

Although leader Chelsea is at struggling Wolverhampton

Wanderers on Saturday, second-place Manchester United could easily

drop points at Everton the same day and give Arsenal hope of

closing on the top pair.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is looking to draft a few

players back into his side to pick up the team.

He may recall first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia after

Lukasz Fabianski made a mess of his opportunity to impress against

Porto, scoring an own goal and needlessly giving away the free kick

that led to the second.

Midfielder Alex Song could also return from injury, although

Abou Diaby will be missing because of a medial knee ligament

injury.

“He had pain in his knee,” Wenger said. “I’d say Song is 80

percent to be back in the squad. Almunia 50:50. But Diaby is zero.”

William Gallas, Andrei Arshavin and Eduardo da Silva are

still out, with the former pair also likely to miss next weekend’s

match at Stoke.

Wenger has been criticized by commentators and even some

Arsenal fans for refusing to bolster his young and physically

unimposing side during the past few transfer windows.

But he remains insistent that his team can close the

six-point gap on Chelsea and Sunderland manager Steve Bruce

believes him.

“The fellow borders on being a genius,” Bruce said. “You look

at what he’s achieved in this country and a lot of it has been to

the detriment of English managers. A lot of chairmen have looked at

Arsene Wenger and thought ‘if he can do it, the foreign manager is

the way to go.’

“But anyone who dares to criticize him is barking up the

wrong tree.”

Sunderland has arrested its decline somewhat with three

straight draws but has still dropped five places to 13th over the

past 12 matches and is just three points above the relegation zone.

Sunderland could be without as many as six midfielders, with

Lee Cattermole and David Meyler suspended and Jordan Henderson and

Andy Reid injured.

Steed Malbranque and Kieran Richardson could also miss out,

along with defenders Anton Ferdinand and John Mensah, but the

quartet have at least a slim chance of making the match.

Chelsea goes to Wolves seeking to recover from a 2-1 loss at

Everton, while Manchester United will be relying on Wayne Rooney to

continue his hot streak against his former club.

Rooney’s two goals in Wednesday’s 3-2 Champions League win at

AC Milan took his tally for the season to 25.

United manager Alex Ferguson might be tempted to give his

striker a break, but he needs Rooney’s goals as badly as ever when

the two teams meet as United tries to catch Chelsea in the Premier

League title race.

Rooney has started the last 15 league and cup games, scoring

13 times, and Ferguson is likely to stick with his tactic of

fielding the striker alongside two wide players – leaving Dimitar

Berbatov and Michael Owen on the bench.

“There has been an improvement in his game over the last two

months,” Ferguson said. “Confidence has a lot to do with that but

it’s also his ability as a player.”

Also Saturday, West Ham hosts fellow struggler Hull and Stoke

is at last-place Portsmouth.

There are five games Sunday, with Aston Villa vs. Burnley,

Blackburn vs. Bolton, Fulham vs. Birmingham, Manchester City vs.

Liverpool and Wigan vs. Tottenham.