The business end of the season begins on Sunday for Sunderland as Fulham provide the opposition in a must win game at the Stadium of Light.
Despite the startling fact that Sunderland have now not recorded a league win since last November, there are still plenty of reasons for Sunderland supporters to remain positive as the final run in approaches. A glance at their upcoming fixtures reveals several winnable home games beginning with the visit of the Cottagers on Sunday. March contains two tough away fixtures at Aston Villa and Liverpool, but promisingly home matches facing Bolton, Birmingham and a Manchester City side who look shaky on the road. Perhaps more than any other side battling for Premier League survival, the Black Cat’s fate is still in their own hands, but positive performances must be turned into league points.
Recent run outs have not lacked commitment and if Sunderland’s level of performance is maintained they should be rewarded with home victories. At Arsenal last weekend the Wearsiders gave an excellent account of themselves and if it was not for some wayward finishing they may well have come out of the game with a result. It is easy to forget that before this match the Black Cats were unbeaten in three matches, although they would have hoped to turn draws into victories in their games against Wigan, Stoke and Portsmouth. A lack of discipline proved their undoing at Fratton Park but they always looked committed and combatant during these games. Admittedly the quality has been lacking but this comes with confidence and Steve Bruce’s side left the Emirates last weekend with the knowledge they can hold their own against the best.
A win is vital on Sunday against a side that will have recently returned from a game in the Ukraine. Fulham have performed poorly on their travels this season, having recorded only one away win and have tended to perform poorly when playing league fixtures shortly after their Europa League away games. However Steve Bruce would do well to remind his players that the Cottagers have now won four straight games in all competitions, are unbeaten in six and their best result of the season – the 3-0 defeat of Manchester United – followed an away trip in European competition. As for Sunderland, Bruce can welcome back Lee Cattermole to the fold following his one match suspension. Andy Reid remains sidelined but Kieran Richardson looked hungry against Arsenal and should provide sufficient cover in left-midfield. For the first time in months, the Sunderland manager has every defender available and it will be interesting to see what he deems his strongest back four. A centre-back pairing of John Mensah and Anton Ferdinand with Alan Hutton at right-back and George McCartney on the left looks decent on paper and such personnel would be comfortable in possession of the ball, something Sunderland have lacked in recent games. They should improve distribution into midfield, an area where Michael Turner and Matthew Kilgallon have been found wanting.
The noises coming out of the Sunderland camp have been encouraging this week, hinting at a team ready for the fight ahead. The returning Lee Cattermole told BBC Newcastle: “Everyone’s behind the manager, everyone’s pulling in the same direction and we’re still looking to finish in the top half.” The young midfield enforcer might seem overly optimistic but a look at the league table reveals there is still a negotiable route upwards as well as downwards. One reason for the North East side’s early season form was the excellent Cattermole and if he can get back to full fitness before the end of the season he may prove the catalyst that lifts Sunderland’s performances. The club’s top scorer Darren Bent also reaffirmed his dedication to the cause this week telling George Caulkin on the club’s website: “I was probably guilty of talking about Europe – but Sunderland nearly got relegated in the last couple of seasons and sometimes a club has to take baby steps first. I’ve got huge ambition for Sunderland and I want to be here for years to come, doing well and playing in Europe, but we have to take things step by step.”
Of course, such rhetoric will have to be backed up by on field performances, but Steve Bruce can rest assured that his team’s fate is very much in their own hands and they have more than enough talent to pull themselves out of the mire.
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