Arsene Wenger could be forgiven for appearing distracted when he delivers his team talk ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Sunderland this weekend.
While the Gunners manager will undoubtedly be focused on the challenge facing his own side, he will be equally concerned by events at Villa Park, where Aston Villa’s meeting with Chelsea will conclude around 25 minutes before kick-off in North London.
With Arsenal currently languishing in fifth place, the outcome of the meeting between the two teams immediately above them in the Premier League could ultimately have a huge influence on Wenger’s ambitions of steering his side to a top-four finish and qualification for next season’s Champions League.
The manager had already conceded that leaders Manchester United were “untouchable” before Sir Alex Ferguson’s team beat Fulham in midweek to move five points clear of Liverpool and a huge 15 points ahead of Arsenal.
Instead, it is the top four that marks the limit of the Gunners’ realistic ambitions and after three successive league draws — two of them scoreless — Wenger’s side need to find a cutting edge.
The goal-scoring return of Croatia international Eduardo against Cardiff City in the FA Cup fourth-round replay raised hopes that Arsenal’s striker problems could soon be over.
But having been out for more than a year with a broken leg, the forward damaged his hamstring during his comeback and will now be sidelined for a fortnight.
“Eduardo is out for two weeks,” Wenger said. “He picked up a hamstring injury two minutes before I took him off. What a nightmare. It is nothing like he had before, but I do know that little set-backs like this are part of being nine months out. But at the same time, it is a blow because, of course, he can score goals. He had shown that on Monday night.”
With Emmanuel Adebayor also out with a hamstring injury, Wenger will again be forced to juggle his limited forward resources, although he will freshen up his supply lines with the introduction of Russian play-maker Andrei Arshavin for his debut.
Arshavin’s protracted arrival was completed controversially 23 hours after the end of the transfer window.
Having been sidelined during Zenit St Petersburg’s mid-season break, the player is short of match-fitness, although Wenger insists he will play some part.
“He will be involved,” the Frenchman said. “But I have not decided what I will do with him yet.”
Attempting to wreck Arshavin’s big day will be a Sunderland quickly emerging from the difficulties that led to former manager Roy Keane’s departure and determined to consolidate their standing in mid-table.
Under Ricky Sbragia, the northeast side have moved six points clear of the bottom three and the manager claims one of the factors behind the change in fortune has been the rash of departures — including El-Hadji Diouf to Blackburn Rovers and Pascal Chimbonda to Tottenham Hotspur — that has seen his squad shrink from the unwieldly 35-man group he inherited from Keane.
“From my point of view the numbers now are workable,” Sbragia said. “There were 22 in training the other day and I would say that was the best it’s been since I took over. It means now we’ve maybe nine players not whispering, not happy and disrupting the dressing room.”