Arsenal legend Merson backs Gunners to keep on winning

Belgrade housewife Mariana Kovacevic may have Arsenal s title hopes - or rather Robin van Persie s crocked right ankle - in her hands, but the injury-hit Gunners more immediate concern is three points on Wearside on Saturday. Arsenal legend Paul Merson -

Belgrade housewife Mariana Kovacevic may have Arsenal's title hopes - or rather Robin van Persie's crocked right ankle - in her hands, but the injury-hit Gunners' more immediate concern is three points on Wearside on Saturday.

Arsenal legend Paul Merson - a two-time title winner with the club - believes three points are imperative for Arsene Wenger's in-form side to set them up for the big Emirates clash with Chelsea on Sunday week.

"It's extremely important we win on Saturday - and at the very least get a point - as I reckon this match could decide how the next few matches turn out," Merson tells Ham&High Sport.

"If we go to Sunderland and get three points, the pressure is off us the following week when we take on Chelsea.

"But, and this would concern me, if we lost on Saturday it piles on the pressure because, all of a sudden, Chelsea becomes a must-win game and we really don't want that."

Merson says six points in their next two league outings may be a big ask - but four should be the minimum target.

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"Personally, I think Arsene Wenger will take four points from the Sunderland and Chelsea games. He'll be happy with that.

"We just cannot afford to give ourselves any extra pressure.

"I think we can win at Sunderland. And I think we will win at Sunderland."

Not that the Black Cats, who have quietly moved up to eighth place in the Barclays Premier League, will be a soft touch.

Merson has been impressed with the job new boss Steve Bruce is doing in the north-east, especially at home where they have picked up 13 points out of a possible 18, taking the prized scalp of Liverpool on the way.

"They have spirit now and are slowly striving for consistency," adds Merson.

"They are a particularly tough proposition on their own pitch and scrap for everything. Steve Bruce is a very good manager and has really got them playing for each other.

"I watched them battle back from 2-0 down at home to West Ham with 10 men - that showed you the togetherness in the team.

"Don't forget also that they were desperately unlucky to only get a draw at Manchester United - they should have won that game too."

Sunderland's explosive home support - more than 42,000 are expected on Saturday - can also play a part on our great occasion.

"I played up there many times and, for me, playing in front of passionate fans like that was a pleasure," he says.

"I remember Dennis Bergkamp scoring one of the best goals I've ever seen - a proper worldie [world class] finish - at the old Roker Park.

"The fans up there applauded it which, for me, shows they know their football.

"It was a tight old ground but they made a hell of a noise at Roker Park. They have transferred that to the new stadium - it is an impressive arena and a great place to play football."

Victory, though, is Arsenal's for the taking.

"We've done well up there in recent matches and I think that kind of atmosphere can inspire our lads. As I said, I am expecting three points."

Arsenal, though, travel north with a growing number of injured players remaining at home.

Robin van Persie and Kieran Gibbs joined a long list of absentees which includes Nicklas Bendtner, Theo Walcott - who is expected to return to training next week - Gael Clichy and Denilson.

The Black Cats, who have been away in the Caribbean in the past week, welcome back reported Arsenal target Lorik Cana after a one-match suspension.

The Albanian midfielder - who missed their defeat at Tottenham in their last league outing - said this week: "On Saturday I am sure we will be ready and we can do well.

"Arsenal are a very good team, no doubt, and they will be up there with Manchester United and Chelsea.

"They have been playing very well - especially in the last few weeks - and are a threat whether at home or away."

Bruce, for his part, has been delighted with Cana - a �5m signing from Marseille - as he has developed a formidable midfield partnership with England Under-21 star Lee Cattermole, who is now injured and out until January.

"Cana's been everything I wanted him to be when I first signed him, and a little bit more," said Bruce.

"He's a good footballer, and that's something that gets overlooked because everyone talks about how solidly he tackles."

Ham & High Sport Verdict: Sunderland's home record is one of the most formidable in the country, and Arsenal - hit by yet more injuries - will have to make use of their full squad in the coming weeks, starting with their tricky trip to Wearside. They should sneak it by a single goal.

Prediction: Sunderland 1 Arsenal 2