SUNDERLAND, November 20- Arsene Wenger has shrugged off claims that the loss of Robin van Persie will fundamentally undermine Arsenal chances of closing the gap on Premier League leaders Chelsea.Wenger’s side currently lie second, five points behind Carlo Ancelotti’s team, and travel to face Sunderland without the Dutch striker who suffered ankle ligament damage in Holland’s international friendly with Italy.
Van Persie is expected to be out for six weeks and his absence undoubtedly comes as a blow to the Gunners who went into the international break on the back of a 13-game unbeaten run.
The forward’s contribution to that sequence of results has been immense with Van Persie adapting effectively to a new role this season that has seen him operate as the central figure in a front three.
With Nicklas Bendtner also injured, there is no obvious replacement to fill the role although Eduardo, the Croatia forward who signed a new long-term contract with the club this week, has made it clear he would like the opportunity to make the position his own.
Wenger has so far refused to indicate who will replace Van Persie, but he is confident he has sufficient cover in his squad and is simply relieved not to have lost his main striker for a longer period.
"We knew that when Robin came out with this injury, that he would be out for a long time," Wenger said.
"But frankly I feared it would be more because the first news was very, very bad. So it was a relief that he would be out for six weeks.
"Of course it is a disappointment and something we did not want but I feel we have enough strength to compensate for his absence for a while. It will also allow him to be fresh for when he comes back.
While Arsenal’s recent run has attracted plenty of plaudits to counter the criticism that followed successive away defeats to Manchester United and Manchester City earlier in the campaign, they have largely faced teams they would normally expect to beat.
The next two league games, the trip to Sunderland and the visit of Chelsea to the Emirates Stadium, will reveal a lot more about their ability to maintain a title challenge throughout the course of the season.
Steve Bruce’s Sunderland side are one of the division’s most improved sides but the manager concedes the visit of Arsenal marks one of the most challenging games of the season, even with Van Persie and Bendtner sidelined.
Bruce said: "We’ve played well recently over the last few weeks without accumulating many points and we’re certainly going to have to replicate that level of performance against an Arsenal side who I think have scored more away goals than anyone this season.
"With Van Persie out and Bendtner out, let’s not beat about the bush, it does you a favour but we’ve got three or four players out as well. When they come to town and we have to match them and play against them."
Bruce has struck up a good relationship with Wenger and has benefited in the past from the Arsenal manager’s willingness to allow his young players to team up with the former Manchester United defender on loan.
Sunderland’s chances haven’t been helped by the loss of centre back Michael Turner to suspension and with striker Kenwyne Jones still banned, Fraizer Campbell will start.
"Arsene’s given me about six or seven players down the years," Bruce added.
"He especially helped me when I was at Birmingham so he’s been a big help to my managerial career and I’ve got huge respect to for him. He’s bordering on the genius.
"Arsenal are and always have been one of the top clubs in this country for the way they conduct themselves, they’ve got a bit of class."
But he added: "Against Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea we’ve gone out there and given as good as we’ve got and come away with something in two of those three games."