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English Premiership

Gunners to regroup

LONDON, February 19 – Arsene Wenger's Arsenal side face Sunderland hoping they have left the self-destructive tendencies that threaten their Champions League ambitions behind in Portugal.
A dire defensive display — especially from stand-in goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski — contributed to a 2-1 defeat by FC Porto that leaves the Gunners facing an uphill task in the return leg at the Emirates Stadium.

Concerns about that fixture, however, will be put firmly to one side as Arsenal bid to bolster their Premier League title challenge at home to Sunderland on Saturday.

Back-to-back defeats by Chelsea and Manchester United appeared to have ended Arsenal’s championship hopes.

But a combination of the home victory over Liverpool, Chelsea’s defeat at Everton and Manchester United’s draw at Aston Villa has once again narrowed the gap between the leading three teams, with the Gunners six points off top spot.

However, Arsenal’s lingering hopes rest on their ability to avoid any unexpected slip-ups against less fancied teams, adding to the pressure facing them ahead of their meeting with Steve Bruce’s Sunderland side.

Defeat in Porto could at least be explained partly by the withdrawal of five key players, including keeper Manuel Almunia, whose absence paved the way for Fabianski’s inclusion.

Almunia has a chance of returning against Sunderland, as does midfielder Alex Song, although midfielder Abou Diaby has been ruled out after injuring his knee in Portugal.

"We lost Abou Diaby," said Wenger. "It is not understandable. I don’t know how it worked but he has a medial knee ligament injury."

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The Frenchman added: "However, Song could be available, we have a test tomorrow (Friday) on him.

"I don’t know about Almunia, we’ll have a test tomorrow on him too. I’d say Song is 80 percent to be back in the squad. Almunia fifty-fifty. Diaby is zero."

Wenger confirmed winger Andrey Arshavin and striker Eduardo (both hamstring) as well as defender William Gallas (back) were all still out of action.

But all eyes will be on Wenger’s choice of goalkeeper on Saturday with Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas acknowledging Fabianski will be under severe scrutiny if the young Pole is between the posts against Sunderland.

"He is strong and we have to be there for him," Fabregas said of Fabianski. "Sometimes when you are young in a big game, these things happen to you.

"You can be a little bit down but the team will be 100 percent behind him and help him in the next game to come back to his best.

"He is a very good keeper. He had his chance (against Porto) and sometimes it doesn’t go your way.

"It didn’t go his way but we will stand up and support him until the end because he is a good character and I am sure he will be back.

"Whenever he has to play, I am sure he will do well."

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Sunderland’s task appears daunting as they attempt to end a run of 12 games without a win that has sent them plummeting towards the relegation zone.

"There is always a shock somewhere and I hope we can go there and play well," said Bruce.

"We need to win a game, to get the monkey off our backs and why not against Arsenal? We did it before and I’m sure we can try and do it again.

"We’ve drawn five of our last seven games and in those we could quite easily have won two or three, it’s been that close."

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