'Walcott not yet ready for Arsenal return'

The England winger has not played for Arsenal since rupturing a knee ligament.

Arsene Wenger. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - Theo Walcott, who has been out with a knee injury since January, should make his comeback to the Arsenal squad next week against Burnley but is not ready for this Saturday's match against Sunderland, manager Arsene Wenger said on Friday.

The England winger has not played for Arsenal since rupturing a knee ligament in an FA Cup win over Tottenham Hotspur on 4 January, but made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt in an Under-21 match against Blackburn Rovers on Monday and is expected to have another run-out for the Under-21s against Stoke City at the weekend.

Wenger, talking to the media at the club's training ground at London Colney, north of London, said Walcott was now making good progress and praised his positive attitude during his long layoff.

"He has to get used to physical contact again. He has been out for nine months. It was a big injury," he said.

"It takes time to settle and to get used to being kicked again. He needs a game to feel completely confident but he is not far.

"Fitness-wise he is there to take part in a game, but on the contact front he needs a bit more time."

Wenger also praised his mental toughness during what he said was a difficult time for the player.

"He is a very polite and social guy but behind that he is mentally very strong and what he has gone through in the last nine months...you gain even more respect for him because he has had some difficult times but always responded very positively.

"He has a young baby, there were some problems after... but he has done extremely well."

There is no immediate return in sight though for France international defender Laurent Koscielny, who is still out with an Achilles injury.

"I cannot give you any date," Wenger added. "I hope he will be available after the next international break," he said.

Mikel Arteta has been passed fit to return from a calf injury and looks set to replace the suspended Jack Wilshere.

Arsenal go to Sunderland having won only one of their last seven Premier League games which has left them seventh in the table, 11 points behind leaders Chelsea.

On Wednesday they scored a late 2-1 comeback win over Anderlecht in the Champions League with both their goals coming in the last two minutes and their German defender Per Mertesacker has admitted confidence is low.

"Everyone knows it has been a difficult start to the season for us and our confidence is not that much how we want it," he said after the game where they were on the back foot for much of the time.

"The character is good and the mentality is good but football-wise we lack a few things. The passing game is not as efficient as last year. We are not at our best, we have to admit that."

They have the perfect chance to put things right against Sunderland, who are not at their best either following their 8-0 defeat at Southampton last week.