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By ESPN Staff
May 2, 2006

Ashley Cole ready to step up fitness bid

England defender Ashley Cole will start one of Arsenal's last two Premiership games after returning to senior action at Sunderland.

The 25-year-old left-back, who had been out with a stress fracture of his foot, played 25 minutes at the Stadium of Light and will play from the off against either Manchester City or Wigan.

Manager Arsene Wenger was happy with Cole's contribution as his side eased to a 3-0 win at the Stadium of Light to maintain their interest in the battle for fourth place.

Wenger declared of Cole: 'He did well when he came on. He played in midfield and physically looked sharp.

'He certainly will play one of the two games remaining. We play on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, and he will play in one of the two games.

'He's getting better and better. I think he's ready for 90 minutes because he has played two games in the reserves and came through them, so it shouldn't be a problem to play 90 minutes.'

By the time Cole joined the fray, the damage had already been done by Arsenal.

The impetus of a bright start from relegated Sunderland was lost when defender Danny Collins headed a Thierry Henry free-kick into his own net after 28 minutes.

Henry then played in Cesc Fabregas to make it 2-0 and added a third himself with a 43rd-minute free-kick to condemn the Black Cats to the 14th home league defeat of their relegation season.

However, the win was overshadowed by a season-ending injury to 19-year-old midfielder Abou Diaby.

Diaby fractured and dislocated his ankle in an injury-time clash with substitute Dan Smith and now has no chance of playing in the Champions League final.

Wenger was furious and said: 'I'm down for him because he's had to fight against injuries and has already had surgery on his ankle.

'The way he got kicked, it's just difficult to take. There were a few incidents before that with Fabregas as well which were not nice to see.'

However, caretaker Sunderland boss Kevin Ball defended Smith in particular and his team in general after Wenger and Henry complained about his side's physical approach.

Ball said: 'Let them say what they want to say, that's entirely up to them. There's nothing I can change about that.

'I felt we went about our jobs well in the second half, and if he (Henry) feels that, he's entitled to his opinion.

'I'd like to think you would give us a bit more praise for the way we went about our job in the second half.'

Indeed, Sunderland would have pulled a goal back had Jens Lehmann not produced a superb 53rd-minute save from Kevin Kyle's header.

Ball said: 'You have to understand, we were up against what I hope will be the champions of Europe in a few weeks' time, and we always knew it was going to be a difficult game.

'It can be frustrating for the players, and it culminated in Thierry Henry scoring a tremendous free-kick.

'The way he lifted it up and over the wall was superb, especially if you are their manager - but not if you are me.'