Poyet has mountain to climb despite Arsenal's Bayern setback

Posted by Colin Randall

Paul Thomas/Getty ImagesGus Poyet's Sunderland currently sit 18th in the Premier League table.

Watching Arsenal in the Champions League, it was possible to see why Sunderland should not approach Saturday's game at the Emirates with trepidation.

- Report: Wenger not taking Sunderland lightly

With Kieran Gibbs injured in the Bayern game and now ruled out for an immediate return, Gus Poyet will be hoping Arsene Wenger sticks with his Wednesday substitution of Nacho Monreal. Adam Johnson should then be given a free hand to follow him wherever he goes; he can attack from either wing and, in his recent form, make Monreal long for the comfort of the bench. Fabio Borini has the skill and finishing power to cause problems as well.

But Poyet knows Arsenal start as runaway favourites to do what they have been doing all season, beating the bottom-half sides even when top six contenders have proved too stiff a test. Sunderland do not possess the world-class midfielders to dominate the Gunners as Bayern did once the Germans had weathered the early storm. The defence may be vulnerable to Arsenal's pace.

That said, Sunderland play better away than at home, as the decent showings at Everton, Manchester United, Cardiff, Fulham and, of course, Newcastle, demonstrate. Poyet's squad seems to prefer the challenge of rising to the occasion of the big match, home in cup competitions and away in general.

Poyet's hopes of leaving the Emirates with a point, or better, rest in part on his ability to convince his team Arsenal away presents just such an opportunity to play out of their skins in a game more important to the club than the Capital One Cup final next weekend, and to play accordingly.

If that means "parking the bus" and enduring a stream of Arsenal insults, as happened after a goalless draw on the first day of last season, so be it. Sunderland's need for points to stave off relegation from the Premier League is far greater than any yearning for purist endorsement. I like and admire Wenger but would sooner hear his condemnation of poor refereeing and negative opposition tactics than a warmhearted tribute to a losing Sunderland's plucky attempt to match his team's fair.

When Poyet was soaking up plaudits for Sunderland's emphatic derby win at St James' Park, he must have been thinking that, give or take tactical changes for specific opponents, he had found his ideal starting 11.

Then Wes Brown's questionable decision to risk -- and duly be shown -- a red card barely three minutes into the next game, with the result that Hull City were transformed from well-organised but unspectacular into unplayable, deprived him of his best defender for two matches.

The selection problem was to grow trickier, for good reasons. A much-changed line-up for the FA Cup tie with Southampton made light of what was, for some, a step-up from fringe status. Poyet admitted he had been given food for thought.

Santiago Vergini, his Argentinian loan signing from Estudiantes, played soundly against the Saints alongside John O'Shea -- whereas Vergini had struggled against Hull, he may have made swift adjustment to the Premier. He is certain to start again. Another Argentinean recruit, Oscar Ustari, kept a clean sheet to defy Southampton but will surely make way again for Vito Mannone, anxious to do likewise to show his former employers they were mistaken to make so little use of him.

Up front, Poyet has abundance of choice, but of mixed value. Borini should walk into any starting team on his present form. But while Jozy Altidore has his uses, not always recognised, as a thorough nuisance to defenders, he seems unable to score. Steven Fletcher is no longer prolific and is, in any case, unlikely to be fit enough for more than a substitute's role. Connor Wickham, back from loan with Sheffield Wednesday, looks sharp but also has trouble with finding the net at Premier level.

The Sunderland contingent -- the allocation is, as happens at so many away games, sold out -- deserves a performance that allows them to put Wembley eight days later out of mind. Staying in the top flight is Poyet's principal target this season, and should be theirs and the players' too.

If jubilant Sunderland supporters are able, against all odds, to paint the West End of London red and white, after each of two games in succession at the Emirates and Wembley, then something approaching the height of footballing bliss will be reached.

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