Plenty of column inches have been devoted to the impact Martin O’Neill has had on Sunderland since replacing the beleaguered Steve Bruce before Christmas.
And while I’m loath to keep covering old ground, the facts speak for themselves – the Black Cats are the Premier League’s form team right now, having won seven of their last ten matches.
They boast the third meanest defence in the division – only Man City and Liverpool have shipped fewer goals than their 24 – and they have won their last three matches without conceding.
However, Sunderland have not won four consecutive top-flight games since 2000 and will need to be on top form to match that record this weekend as Arsenal pitch up at the Stadium of Light.
The Gunners should be in buoyant mood after their 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn last time out, which brought a hugely disappointing four-match winless run to a comprehensive end.
Boss Arsene Wenger has had to contend with an avalanche of injuries but he is now finally starting to get players back as his side approach a make-or-break phase in their campaign.
Kieran Gibbs (remember him?) is named in their squad after being sidelined for a lengthy spell by two hernia operations, meaning Arsenal have a specialist left-back to call upon for the first time since their defeat at Olympiakos in December.
He probably won’t be thrown straight in against the Black Cats, but his comeback will allow Wenger to move Thomas Vermaelen back into the centre alongside the impressive Laurent Koscielny.
Robin van Persie’s hat-trick against Blackburn took him to 28 goals in 30 appearances this term and the flying Dutchman has scored seven in his last seven games against Sunderland. I would strongly suggest backing him to notch again at odds of 11/10.
This, in turn, could see the occasionally ponderous Per Mertesacker – who, for all his presence and reading of the game, is horribly susceptible to pace – removed from the firing line.
But perhaps more significant is the recent return of the scandalously under-rated Bacary Sagna – is there a better or more consistent right-back in the Premier League? – from the broken leg he suffered at White Hart Lane last year.
The Frenchman can further shore up a Gunners backline which has been woeful on the road at times this season – shipping 25 goals in 12 matches – and I’m thoroughly relishing his battle with the hugely exciting James McClean.
In fairness, the Gunners should be the fresher of the two sides, as they were sat with their feet up in midweek while a full-strength Sunderland were being pushed all the way to extra-time in their FA Cup fourth-round replay with Middlesbrough.
However, six defeats on the road already for Wenger’s men is a telling statistic, which is why it is not easy to make a compelling case for them to snatch a victory on Wearside.
Arsenal are actually favourites at evens in bwin’s 3Way football betting market, with the draw available at 12/5 and a Sunderland triumph priced at 13/5.
The Londoners have only lost on one of their last eight visits to the Stadium of Light, while the last four have all featured under 2.5 goals – a repeat on Saturday is priced at 17/20.
It should also be noted that, for all their defensive woes in away games, only the two Manchester clubs have scored more than Arsenal’s 22 goals on the road.
Robin van Persie’s hat-trick against Blackburn took him to 28 goals in 30 appearances this term – with 22 in the league – and the flying Dutchman has scored seven in his last seven games against Sunderland.
I would strongly suggest backing him to notch again at odds of 11/10, while he is available at 4/1 to score first, as he did in the Gunners’ 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in October.
Van Persie will have ample supply from the flanks through Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while the return of Mikel Arteta in the past two games has restored some much-needed composure and fluency to Arsenal’s attacking moves.
In Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal have a real find and while Wenger has displayed understandable caution in relation to how much he can contribute this term, for what it’s worth, I firmly believe he is destined for the very top.
Of course, he’s still raw, but he has all the pace of Walcott and is far more direct and convincing than the England winger when running at defenders.
He possesses the type of vision, technique and range of passing which his fellow ex-Southampton man can only dream of and is frankly staggering for someone who only turned 18 in August.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will not be fazed by the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light and I would not be surprised at all to see him give probable opposite number Phil Bardsley a real going over.
After his brace against Steve Kean’s men, he’s a very tempting 9/4 to score at any time, while he can be backed to break the deadlock at 8/1.
Sunderland, for their part, will certainly pose a threat for Arsenal’s shaky backline, although I thought they lacked a cutting edge up front against Boro.
Fraizer Campbell is still playing himself back into form after a long injury lay-off – even if he has grabbed a couple of goals already – while Connor Wickham still looks undercooked at this level.
Gunners fans will also breathe a huge sigh of relief that on-loan Nicklas Bendtner is ineligible to face his parent club (alright, they’ll probably be disappointed he’s not playing).
So the main threat will come from tricky playmaker Stephane Sessegnon – who has scored or set up a goal in seven of his last eight league appearances – and the pin-point delivery of former Gunner Seb Larsson, which could expose Arsenal’s infamously poor record at defending set-pieces.
With this in mind, punters looking for short-priced selections should back both teams to score, which should pay off at odds of 18/25.
Considering the respective form of the sides, the draw looks to offer most value in the 3Way market, but I have a feeling that Arsenal may just be able to get over the line on this occasion.
O’Neill has managed just one win in 16 matches against the Gunners as a manager and will do what most savvy bosses do against them – invite them into their half, press them when they approach the final third and then look to spring counter-attacks when they win the ball back.
The only problem for O’Neill is that one of the tactics this approach encourages – overloading central areas in a bid to force Arsenal out to the flanks – could just play into the Gunners’ hands.
As mentioned earlier, Oxlade-Chamberlain should have the measure of Bardsley, while Walcott will fancy his chances against either Kieran Richardson, whose defensive attributes are questionable, or recent loan signing Wayne Bridge.
And with Van Persie on hand to gobble up any chances they do create, Arsenal have the ammunition to get the perfect boost ahead of their Champions League test against Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday.
Sunderland will certainly make a game of it but they could become leggy in the second half after their midweek exertions and Arsenal should have enough class and energy to outlast them over the piece.
There’s no real value in their 3Way price of evens, so I’ll be backing the Gunners to win a game with less than four goals at odds of 7/4, while a 2-1 win for Wenger’s men looks very attractive at 15/2 as a longer-priced play.
Punters receive a free £25 bet for joining bwin.com and placing it on the former selection would provide a return of £68.75 if successful.
And with an FA Cup re-match between the duo pencilled in for next weekend, the Gunners will be delighted if they can lay down a marker to O’Neill and his rapidly improving side.
New customers can register here to claim a free £25 bet or click here to see all our Premier League odds.
Follow us on Twitter @bwinbetting