A torrid preseason campaign can finally be put behind us as the games begin for real! Quite a scary proposition actually as Arsenal appear to have loaded up while uncertainty still reigns over Robin Van Persie, at the same time we've done very little while being unable to find the net for love nor money.
All things said though, it's a new start, a new season and everyone gets a clean slate as far as I'm concerned. There's also a slightly modified preview to look forward to too, so check out the below...
Sunderland Team News
It's been a pretty godawful summer so far, with very little to cheer about, but as we said above, it's a new season, a new start and now games actually matter we might try a little bit harder.
There's no injury problems or new signings to contend with in the goalkeeping department, so it should be another straight shoot out between Simon Mignolet and Keiren Westwood. We think, as per last season this quite closely matched battle will be won by the Belgian, who'll start the season as our number one.
The defence could have any number of possible looks to it, but we think we might have an inkling of how it will look. Phil Bardsley has undergone surgery on his ankle, so look for Craig Gardner, who has been used in the role extensively in the Manc-come-Scotsman's absence to continue do do so here.
In the middle, Martin O'Neill didn't say that either were first choice, but says he prefers John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar to play as central defenders, and we think both will lineup against Arsenal in those positions. Wes Brown continues to nurse an injury, meaning a spot on the bench is his best bet for action at the Emirates while the less said about Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon the better.
Despite being moved to here, there and every where this summer on the pitch and continually linked with moves away off it, we whole-heartedly expect Kieran Richardson to start at left back this weekend.
The two charged with playing a holding role in midfield will be Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback, and will be for the entire season barring injury and suspensions you'd figure. In front of them slightly should be James McClean down the left and Seb Larsson down the right.
Stephane Sessegnon appears to have overcome an ankle injury according to all reports, and we fully expect him to slot in behind Fraizer Campbell in attack for this one. Obviously now Louis Saha has been added to the mix, but given he's only arrived with his new teammates late this week after being a free agent this summer, it would come as a shock to see him start.
Arsenal Team News
Despite the ongoing rumblings about the future of star striker Robin Van Persie this summer, they didn't let it affect their transfer business too much and brought in some top quality talent to bolster their ranks. With the sale of the Dutchman finally complete, you'd hope Arsenal would be slightly weakened, but a forward line of Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud is still not one to be messed with.
Wojiech Szczesny has firmly won the battle to be the club's number one keeper and will start between the sticks for the home side.
The defence in front of him should also have a relatively familiar look about it too, with Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen in the middle with Kieran Gibbs at left back, although there's concerns for the Londoners at right back. Laurent Kocielny was kept out of the France against Uruguay game this week, and Bacary Sagna is already on the treatment table, which could lead to a start for Carl Jenkinson at the full back position.
With increasing interest from Barcelona, it would seem unlikely that Alex Song will play in this one as he looks to seal a move to the Catalan side, leaving either Aaron Ramsey or Abou Diaby to start alongside Mikel Arteta in the middle. Jack Wilshere continues to miss out through injury.
Then things get a little scary. Arsenal are likely to hand debuts to Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla in attacking berths, with Theo Walcott lining up on the right-hand side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will no doubt be reduced to a bench role having missed England's game midweek with injury, as will Andrey Arshavin and Gervinho. Still a relatively scary thought without Robin Van Persie after his sale to Manchester United.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Gardner, O'Shea, Cuellar, Richardson, Cattermole, Colback, McClean, Larsson, Sessegnon, Campbell
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Ramsey, Arteta, Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski, Giroud
Key Matchup: Lee Cattermole Vs Santi Cazorla
It's basically Cattermole versus whoever takes the role of main play-maker for Arsenal, but we think it's likely to be Cazorla who'll start out wide, but drift all over the place and pull the strings for the home side in this one.
Cattermole will have to sit deep, and chase shadows for a lot of the afternoon without becoming frustrated and give away silly freekicks as he is prone to do. He's done it before, such as against Manchester City at home when he was magnificent in shadowing Samir Nasri and later David Silva, keeping them quiet for the entire game.
It's a really tough ask, but in the role of captain he has to lead by example, and if we can stop the main flow to the likes of Podolski and Giroud... and Van Persie, and Arshavin... and Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain... and Marouane Cham... actually it doesn't matter about him so much... then we'll be half way to getting something from the game this weekend.
If Cattermole can sit there and assert his authority within the laws of the game, we could have a sniff of a chance this weekend.
Recent Form: WWLDW
West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Arsenal (Benayoun 4, Long 11, Dorrans 15, Santos 30, Koscielny 55)
Win: Malaysian XI 1-2 Arsenal (Muslim 45, Eisfeld 87, Aneke 89)
Loss: Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City (Zabaleta 41, Y.Toure 45)
Draw: Kitchee 2-2 Arsenal (Lopez 7, Walcott 24, Rodriguez 29, Eisfeld 79)
Win: FC Cologne 0-4 Arsenal (Vermaelen 7, Podolski 15 & 44, Gervinho 63)
Last Time Around: Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland, 16/10/11
Last time we headed to the Emirates it was before the Sky Sports cameras and saw us slump to a 2-1 defeat in a game noted for two stunning freekicks.
Robin Van Persie opened the scoring within the first minute to make us all think that this wasn't going to be our day and a cricket score was in the offing, but an incredible strike from Seb Larsson drew a smile from Tomas Rosicky in the wall, and a cheer from the Sunderland faithful that could have been heard back in North East.
After battling manfully for the majority of the game, ultimately our strikerless system succumbed as Van Persie dispatched an equally impressive strike in the 82nd minute to seal a win for the Gunners.
The Ref: Chris Foy
Foy, not to be confused with Chris Hoy as some silly people managed to do in the not too distant past, actually oversaw more Sunderland games than any other referee last season with five in total.
Of those five games we only managed one victory, the 2-0 home win over the mighty Swansea City, while the other two were draws and defeats. In addition to that he's actually only every oversaw four Sunderland wins, while seeing us lose fifteen times.
On the plus side he's not too overly fussed with cards when it comes to games with us, dishing out only five yellow cards to us in the five games last season, no red cards and no penalties for or against.
What The Managers Said
Arsene Wenger: We want to [compete for honours] and we have a desire to. We are up for it and what we want is to come out of the season and know we have given our best. I feel we did that last year, finishing third with the start we had. The first target is to do as well as we can in every single game and see where we stand at the end of the season, but of course we want to fight for the championship.
Martin O'Neill: I might be going over old ground, but I really felt that last season the players were up for the challenge from day one and some of the results we were able to pull off were magnificent. They stepped up to the mark once and they have to do it again.
Roker Report Predicts
It's such a difficult one to predict. It's the first game of the season so we really want to be optimistic here. Head says following a woeful preseason we'll be on the back foot for the majority of the game, while the heart says forget all that and show some bloody optimism because all that was just preseason which counts for nothing but fitness.
Arsenal have a very exciting front line, but we're hoping that some how they aren't all on the same page just yet, and all this Van Persie business has got to them. We seem relatively solid at the back when Bramble doesn't play, so hopefully, just hopefully, we can squeak out a gutsy, boring, defensive 0-0 draw in this one. Which wouldn't be the worst result in the world by any stretch of the imagination.