After their poor start to last season, Arsenal will be hopeful of a much smoother beginning to the 2012/13 campaign as they entertain Sunderland at the Emirates Stadium. The Black Cats have been revitalised under Martin O’Neill and are keen to hit the ground running in search of a top half finish.
Last summer, Arsene Wenger lost two key players in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. This summer, the loss is even bigger as captain Robin van Persie joins rivals Manchester United in a deal worth up to £24m. Van Persie scored 44 goals in 57 games for club and country last season, almost single-handedly at times firing Arsenal to victory, but Wenger will have to rely on the new strike partnership he possesses. Lukas Podolski has been signed from Cologne and Olivier Giroud, the top scorer in Ligue 1, moves to Arsenal from reigning French champions Montpellier. Wenger has also sought to improve his side’s midfield with the addition of Santi Cazorla from Malaga.
Wenger will once again be without Jack Wilshere for the start of this season after the England international was ruled out until October following surgery. Wojciech Szczesny is expected to keep his place in the Arsenal goal and all three signings are expected to start against Sunderland. Former Arsenal defender Steve Bould has been brought in as assistant manager to replace Pat Rice, who retired this summer, and Bould’s task will be to shape up and toughen a Gunners backline that conceded 49 league goals.
Until Thursday Sunderland had been incredibly inactive in the transfer market with Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer from Aston Villa being the only signing O’Neill had made. Since then, former Tottenham and Everton striker Louis Saha has made a move on a free transfer. Other changes have seen Craig Gordon, who cost the club £9m five years ago, leaving the club on a free and Asamoah Gyan finally moving out of the Stadium of Light on a permanent, £4m deal to Al-Ain in the UAE.
Saha will fight for a place up front with Fraizer Campbell leading their line and O’Neill will be keen for a good start. The Black Cats form is poor, with only two wins in their last 13 matches last season, and former boss Steve Bruce was sacked for the exact same statistic at the beginning of last season.
Both sides know that a good start is paramount to where they want things to head this season. Arsenal need to erase the memory of Van Persie and try to get on with their chase of a first trophy since 2005. For Sunderland, the main focus is to stay alive in a tricky Premier League and follow that up by creeping into the top half of the table by the end of the season.