Walcott urges Arsenal to seal top-three finish

Theo Walcott has urged Arsenal to seal their place in next season’s Champions League group stage by keeping Sunderland mired in the relegation dog-fight on Wednesday.

Arsene Wenger’s side will be certain of securing a top-three finish in the Premier League if they defeat the Black Cats at the Emirates Stadium.

Even a draw is likely to be enough to guarantee they finish above fourth placed Manchester United, who remain two points behind the Gunners with a significantly inferior goal difference and only one game remaining.

The reward for finishing in the top three is automatic entry into the group stages of the Champions League, which avoids the inconvenience of having to take part in a two-legged play-off tie to qualify for the competition early next season.

Wenger admits he has found that experience a major headache in the past, but Arsenal winger Walcott, who set up his side’s equaliser in their 1-1 draw against United at Old Trafford on Sunday, is confident his manager won’t have any need to reach for the pain-killers.

“We’ve got a game in hand over United now and it was a crucial point (on Sunday), knowing that. We just need one more point because of goal difference,” Walcott said.

Walcott made a surprisingly honest admission when he revealed that some of Arsenal players lacked the belief they were capable of keeping pace with champions Chelsea this season.

But the England international, who is competing to return to the starting line-up in time for the FA Cup final against Aston Villa after an injury-ravaged campaign, believes Wenger has assembled a squad strong enough to make a serious push for the title next term.

“Third place is a step forward from where we finished last year. But we need to be pushing on now and trying to challenge for the title,” Walcott said.

“There was an opportunity in the season when we were getting close to Chelsea and people were talking about us competing but I sensed throughout the dressing room that we were never quite up there with Chelsea.

“But looking at the squad, the manager has an absolute headache to try and pick his best team and we want that going into next season.

“We are looking very strong and you never know, he might add a few extra players but we need to be pushing for the Premier League now. There is no excuse.”

– Obdurate opponents –

Sitting three points above third bottom Hull, Sunderland need one more point to be certain of staying up, but a defeat on Wednesday would leave them still in danger of the drop given their inferior goal difference to the Tigers.

Sunderland boss Dick Advocaat has collected 11 points from his seven games since replacing sacked predecessor Gus Poyet on a short-term contract in March.

And although a goalless draw against Leicester on Saturday revealed a few signs of nerves in Advocaat’s squad as the denouement to the relegation battle approaches, the Dutchman is convinced they will survive.

“We will stay in (the Premier League), I have no doubt about that,” Advocaat said.

Black Cats striker Connor Wickham is determined not to prolong the agony until the weekend and has set his sights on taking the decisive step to safety against Arsenal.

“They are two tough games away from homes, but they are opportunities for us. We need one point, we all know that,” he said.

“We know what we have got to do now and it’s something we are capable of. There are two opportunities to clinch it and hopefully we can do that on Wednesday.”

Photo Credits : AFP

Walcott encouraged by Arsenal’s fast starts

Theo Walcott believes Arsenal’s first-half form has been the key to the club’s change in fortunes since the turn of the year.

Arsene Wenger’s side travel to face Crystal Palace on Saturday looking for their eighth victory in nine games since the defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day.

That run, blemished only by defeat at Tottenham two weeks ago, has fired up the Gunners’ top four challenge and earned an FA Cup quarter-final meeting with Manchester United.

A feature of Arsenal’s recent form has been their ability to conjure an early goal that has allowed them to take a grip on the game.

Last weekend it was a double strike from Olivier Giroud midway during the first half that effectively killed off Championship club Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round.

And England winger Walcott maintains Arsenal’s ability to work up an early head of steam has helped generate belief within the side.

“The confidence has come from the way we are starting games,” Walcott said.

“The manager has put in our heads that we need to start well, particularly from the front and pressurise the ball well.

“You need the fans behind you so getting that early goal settles them and the players down.

“We have maybe been working a lot harder in training. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but everyone relates to each other and knows their weaknesses and positives. It is working well.”

Walcott credits the improvements made at the back with helping move Wenger’s side up to fifth place, a point behind fourth-placed Southampton going into the latest round of matches.

“Keeping clean sheets will mean we win games because we always know we are going to score goals and we’ve continued to do that in recent weeks,” he said.

“Things are paying off for us at the moment so we just need to make sure we take it into the next few weeks.”

– Wilshere returns –

Wenger’s team will be boosted by the return of England midfielder Jack Wilshere for the trip to Selhurst Park.

Wilshere returned to full training last week after damaging ankle ligaments against Manchester United in November and is expected to take a place on the bench.

But Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy are out, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mathieu Flamini and Hector Bellerin are doubtful.

Palace have been revived since the arrival of Alan Pardew, losing just one of five Premier League games since the former Newcastle manager took charge.

Last weekend’s FA Cup defeat at home to Liverpool ensured the club’s remaining target is to build on their recent run and secure a mid-table finish.

Palace striker Marouane Chamakh will have an added incentive to do well against his former club after a disappointing stay at the Emirates Stadium.

Pardew believes the Morocco international has benefitted from being given a more prominent role at his new club and said: “I think he’s grown in confidence and sometimes only games can do that for you.

“You know he was in and out at Arsenal, it’s a difficult club to break through. For players like Chamakh, sometimes it’s best to move away and find yourself and he has found himself and he’s an asset to us.”

Palace forward Yaya Sanogo, on loan from Arsenal, is ineligible to face his parent club and having lost Yannick Bolasie and Mile Jedinak to extended international duty last month, Pardew admits he has not yet had the opportunity to field his strongest side.

“We’ve not actually got it all together and I don’t think this weekend we will because we’re not quite there,” Pardew said.

“This is a bonus game for us in a way because no one will expect us to get anything outside of Crystal Palace.”

Photo Credits : AFP