Sunderland face Bolton Wanderers at the Stadium of Light tonight in what is probably their biggest game of the season so far.
This is a scenario that Black Cats’ fans are by now all too familiar with, with the last three home games all viewed by fans and media alike as similarly vital. Disappointing draws against Stoke, Wigan and Fulham have left the Wearsiders hovering three points above the drop zone. Due to fixture rescheduling, they have now embarked on a run of four straight home fixtures – and the kind of opportunity to drag themselves out of their current predicament that most of their rivals will surely envy.
Wins simply have not been coming however and once again this week Steve Bruce hinted at the pressure the team feels when playing in front of the home crowd, telling assorted Press: “I want them to focus on the match and the match only. There’s 1,001 things that could distract them from that. There’s the overwhelming desire of the fans to see us get the right result, the pressure of the long run without a win, the media pressure which develops because of our situation, and also the pressure they put on themselves to try and win.” During his side’s last game against Fulham, all the hallmarks of a team feeling the strain of an expectant home crowd on their shoulders were apparent, with a distinct nervousness when in possession combined with an irritating default setting of hitting the ball long at every given opportunity. Bruce has insisted this is not his instruction and has called for calm when in possession of the ball.
Yet again injuries will mean the Sunderland manager has to name a patched up team. Lee Cattermole and Kieran Richardson are both serious doubts and with Andy Reid and Jordan Henderson unlikely to figure, Anton Ferdinand may have to continue his role as a makeshift midfield player. Its likely Bruce will opt once again for 4-4-2 with Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent resuming a partnership in serious need of goals. Bolo Zenden could also figure in a side that will have an unfamiliar look. Stability does seem to emerging at the back, with Craig Gordon enjoying a good run of performances between the sticks. In front of him, John Mensah has been a real positive in recent weeks, his contest against Bobby Zamora last weekend being one of the few engaging aspects of an otherwise painfully dull game. The Ghanaian international has had his problems with injury this season and is rarely able to get through 90 minutes, but if Sunderland can keep him fit then they have themselves a real asset and he is one of the few players in red and white that has looked remotely comfortable in possession of the ball.
The lack of personnel in midfield may also mean a way back in for Steed Malbranque. The former Tottenham midfielder has recently found himself out of favour and was dropped altogether from the squad to face Fulham and faced disciplinary action by the club following an alleged breach of curfew. He has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season and has looked a shadow of the player he was. Malbranque got off to a promising start on Wearside when brought to the club by Roy Keane at the beginning of last season, laying on many of the assists for Djibril Cisse’s early spate of goals. His form never quite picked up when Keane left with Ricky Sbragia and now Steve Bruce unable to get the best out of him.
That Malbranque’s patchy form began with another less significant departure from the club may not be a coincidence. When Pascal Chimbonda left Sunderland during last season’s January transfer window Malbranque lost the support on the pitch of a gifted attacking full-back. With Phil Bardsley unable to reproduce the same threat going forward it may be that Chimbonda’s ability to get up and down the pitch made up for Malbranque’s lack of mobility. Instead of having two right sided attacking options to worry about, opposition sides could thereafter simply concentrate on Malbranque and as a result easily contain him. With the January acquisition of Alan Hutton the Black Cats once again have an attacking full-back whose ability to get up and down the pitch could once again unleash the attacking potential of the Belgian-born midfielder. Wishful thinking perhaps and unfortunately this theory may have to wait, with Hutton yet another injury doubt to concern Bruce for tonight’s game.
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