Maintaining consistency Arsenal's 'big challenge'
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has called for "exceptional consistency" from his players in their quest to regain a European qualification place.
Gunners supporters have grown accustomed to Champions League campaigns and next week thousands will travel to Italy for the first installment of a fascinating duel with AC Milan.
Yet despite having thrashed Blackburn Rovers 7-1 at the Emirates Stadium last week Arsenal will kick off at Sunderland on Saturday in sixth place, which as it stands is not even good enough for a place in next season's Europa League.
Defeats by Fulham, Swansea City and Manchester United, plus a failure to win at Bolton, put the Gunners in this unfamiliar position but Wenger - who has ruled himself out of the vacant England job - had always been adamant that his players would show their top-four credentials come May.
"We still have real hope that we can finish the season the strongest," he said. "We have a good spirit and desire within the group - and we have quality. We know that with the position we are in we need an exceptional consistency, so that is the challenge we have in front of us at Sunderland."
Francis Coquelin, the French midfielder who has also been employed in defence because of injuries, was also confident of success.
"We showed great character against Blackburn and we should have won against Bolton as we had the chances," he said.
"We have Sunderland at the weekend, so we need to go on a run and win that game so we take a lot of confidence for the trip to Milan.
"We have a great team, it is getting better and better and we can get some good results over the next few weeks."
Wenger has already been handed some welcome news on the selection front.
England defender Kieran Gibbs is poised to return to the squad for the first time in four months following two hernia operations.
Fellow defender Johan Djourou has also returned to full fitness and forward Marouane Chamakh is available for selection after returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Morocco.
Arsenal must also play Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup fifth round the weekend after and the Black Cats are in exceptional form themselves under new manager Martin O'Neill.
Sunderland have won nine times in 13 games since O'Neill succeeded Steve Bruce in December, and midfielder Jack Colback was confident the run could be extended, despite poor results against the Gunners in recent seasons.
The midfielder, who scored in the 2-1 midweek cup victory at Middlesbrough to set up the last 16 meeting with the London club on Saturday week, said: "It's a fantastic opportunity for us.
"Arsenal will come to our place twice and I'm sure they'll believe they can win, but we will too. We know what to expect from them. They like to pass it well, but so do we, so it'll be an open and enjoyable game."
O'Neill took charge with Sunderland in the bottom three. Two months on, they are up to eighth, and enjoying their best FA Cup run for eight years thanks to a remarkable turn-around in fortunes.
Colback added: "He's brought a great self-belief and given us confidence.
"It's kick-started our season, and we're now going into games expecting to win. To say we're feeling unbeatable probably isn't the right word, but we're going into every match extremely confident."
Loan duo Wayne Bridge and Sortirios Kyrgiakos, neither of whom featured against Middlesbrough, return to the squad.
English Premier League top scorers ahead of the weekend's matches:
22: van Persie (Arsenal)
16: Ba (Newcastle)
15: Aguero (Manchester City), Rooney (Manchester United)
12: Dzeko (Manchester City), Yakubu (Blackburn)
10: Bale (Tottenham), Dempsey (Fulham)
9: Adebayor (Tottenham), Balotelli (Manchester City), Bent (Aston Villa), Fletcher (Wolverhampton), Lampard (Chelsea), Sturridge (Chelsea)
8: Chicharito (Manchester United), Defoe (Tottenham), Graham (Swansea City), Helguson (QPR), Morison (Norwich City)
7: Berbatov (Manchester United), Holt (Norwich City), Klasnic (Bolton), Sinclair (Swansea City), van der Vaart (Tottenham)
6: Bellamy (Liverpool), Crouch (Stoke City), Long (West Bromwich), Nani (Manchester United), Pilkington (Norwich City), Sessegnon (Sunderland), Welbeck (Manchester United), Zamora (QPR)
5: Agbonlahor (Aston Villa), Arteta (Arsenal), Johnson (Manchester City), Larsson (Sunderland), Mata (Chelsea), Silva (Manchester City), Suárez (Liverpool), Walters (Stoke City)
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