Arsene Wenger has warned his Arsenal players to expect a battle against relegation-threatened Sunderland on Sunday as he targets a strong finish to a troubled campaign.
The Gunners saw off West Bromwich Albion on Thursday, although the 2-0 victory, courtesy of two Alexis Sanchez goals, was achieved in front of thousands of empty seats as fans stayed away to show their frustration at Wenger’s failure to deliver a title challenge.
With third-placed Arsenal 10 points behind leaders Leicester City and five adrift of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur, Wenger is mostly focused on qualifying for the Champions League via a top-four finish rather than catching the title contenders.
“We want to finish as high as possible,” Wenger said. “You never know what happens in front of you, there could still be twists and turns.
“I don’t know where we will finish but we have to give absolutely everything in every game.
“We go to Sunderland, who are fighting not to go down so that will be a battle and we have to prepare for that.”
Wenger may decide to delay Jack Wilshere’s comeback from injury because he anticipates a fierce challenge from Sunderland as they fight to avoid relegation.
Wilshere has not played all season because of a leg fracture in pre-season and time is running out for the midfielder to be back in action before England’s Euro 2016 squad is picked.
“At the moment I do not know if I will take him on Sunday or not. And should I take him I cannot plan whether he will play a part in the game,” Wenger said.
“If I don’t take him this weekend I will take him the next certainly.”
– Outside influences -In contrast to Wenger’s difficulties with supporters disillusioned by their team’s failure to win the title since 2004, Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce has the full backing of their fans despite his team’s perilous position.
The two men have often clashed in the past, but their relationship has improved recently and Allardyce is saddened by the supporters’ treatment of Wenger.
“Arsene is a brilliant manager. I can understand the frustration that they’ve slipped up by not winning this year. But he keeps getting this stick year in, year out,” Allardyce said.
“It’s a bit unfair on a man who’s arguably got the best record as a manager that Arsenal have ever had.
“It is the generation we are living in. There is a generation of supporters who are so well informed on what we should and shouldn’t be doing as managers.
“It is all the outside influences on them and it reflects in their opinion which changes rapidly when you don’t win just a few games.
“Now it becomes this manager is no good. We don’t want him anymore, let’s get rid of him.
“But it’s a fact of life that we are fast becoming like the continentals: Get a job, do a job, lose a job get another one. It is the way it is going. Sad isn’t it?”
Allardyce has targeted at least three victories from their final five games if Sunderland, who would climb out of the bottom three with a draw or win on Sunday, are to retain their place in the Premier League.
That means Jermain Defoe has to shoulder the burden of scoring goals despite playing as a lone striker.
“Everyone was brainwashed into thinking he couldn’t play up front on his own,” Allardyce said.
“I think he’s probably played more regularly for us than he has for any club in recent years and most of those have been up front on his own which I’m glad to say has born 16 goals in all competitions.
“Sixteen goals is one of the reasons why we’re still in with a shout. The reason we haven’t been in with a shout is because we have been conceding too many goals.”