Sitting at opposite ends of the Premier League table, both Arsenal and Sunderland can realize their primary objective this season when the two sides clash at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday. For Arsenal, a win, and highly likely even a draw, would be good enough to book a place in the top three and avoid a potentially nerve-racking start to next season in a playoff for the Champions League group phase. Sunderland, meanwhile, know that a single point would be sufficient to ensure Premier League survival for another season and avoid their fate being taken to an anxiety-ridden final day.
Despite having a point advantage on local rivals Newcastle United and two on Hull City in the final relegation position, as well as two games rather than one to play, Sunderland can have little room for complacency. After visiting Arsenal they will then head to champions Chelsea on Sunday. It has been another turbulent season for the north east club, with their passionate fan base, which produces an average attendance of close to 50,000, continuing to be left disappointed.
Last season it took one of the Premier League’s greatest escape acts -- winning four of their last five matches -- for Sunderland to beat the drop. But the man who led them to safety, Gus Poyet, rarely appeared a harmonious fit at the Stadium of Light and was sacked in March with the club again in deep relegation trouble.
In their time of need, Sunderland turned to veteran Dutch coach Dick Advocaat until the end of the current campaign. The turnaround has hardly been dramatic, but three wins from their last six matches, combined with the ineptitude of their rivals, means they are in a strong position to complete the job.
“I think we did extremely well so far, but still not well enough to know whether we stay in,” Advocaat said in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday. “But we still have four chances to stay up -- the first two chances are tomorrow night and Sunday and the other two chances are the other two clubs [Newcastle and Hull].
“For this club it is crucial to stay up then everybody knows what they have to do for the next couple of years. Because this is a great club, great stadium, facilities here are brilliant so everything is there to play on a different level than they did the last five years.”
Advocaat added that Sunderland have “nothing to lose” on Wednesday. And they can certainly take encouragement from the last team to visit the Emirates Stadium, with Swansea City emerging with a 1-0 victory last week. Having been the form side in the Premier League for much of 2015, the performances of Arsene Wenger’s men have tailed off in recent weeks. The surprise defeat to Swansea was followed by a 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, salvaged courtesy of a late own goal, to leave Arsenal with just one win from their last four matches. And Wenger is determined for Arsenal not to let a promising season end on a low, especially up against a Sunderland side with much to play for.
“Sunderland are on search of a point to be safe so I expect them to be well organized defensively, sound at the back, and to try to use all the counter-attacks they can, all the set-pieces they can have, to score goals. We have to put a high rhythm into this game and play with a high level of energy to win the game.
“We want to finish out season well. They put a massive effort in since the start of the season to come back on a potentially good position in the league and we have to focus now to finish well. We have put so much effort in that it would be stupid now not to finish the job.”
Arsenal continue to be without Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy, while Laurent Koscielny is a doubt as he battles flu. For Sunderland, Jack Rodwell is available again, but fellow midfielder Liam Bridcutt is out, along with West Brown and Jordi Gomez.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra