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