After Sunderland’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday left the Black Cats hovering just three points above the relegation zone, Steve Bruce admitted that his team are embroiled in yet another relegation dogfight.
He cited injuries as one of the key reasons that the north-east club finds themselves in their current predicament but maintained that positive signs are evident: “We have been struck down with big players missing. I don’t want to make excuses and the signs have been good in the last four weeks. We are getting back to where we were at the beginning of the season with that resilience we had.” Admittedly, Bruce’s side did put on a spirited display and if – amongst others – Kenwyne Jones had finished off relatively simple chances the result could have been very different. The north London side only put the game beyond the Wearsiders on the stroke of full-time after a questionable penalty was awarded when Fraizer Campbell was judged to have fouled Cesc Fabregas inside the box. Bruce – who was yesterday fined £2,500 for comments regarding Andre Mariner’s sending off of Michael Turner against Manchester City in December – was less than happy about the decision, arguing the infringement was outside the area. Unfortunately for Sunderland, points are not given for doggedness, determination and effort and the Black Cats will need put on this kind of showing in upcoming winnable home games against the likes of Fulham, Bolton and Burnley.
Bruce faces a huge challenge in turning the fortunes of the club around before the end of the season, and there are certainly signs that he is feeling the pressure from an expectant support. On Saturday morning comments appeared in the press that suggested the team was feeling the weight of expectation when playing in front of the Stadium of Light crowd. The Sunderland manager said: “This is a great club with great support but, let’s be fair, there’s not much else to shout about apart from our football teams up here. We are out on a limb, away from everybody, so when it goes well we are the greatest place on earth but, if not, it is batten down the hatches time.” Aside from the questionable assertions about the pros and cons of life in the north-east, Bruce is on shaky ground when pointing his finger – albeit vaguely – at the irritability of a Wearside crowd. Yes, criticisms are being made, and they are often very vocal and made during the game, which certainly does not help the players. However, Sunderland’s long suffering support has seen their team put through this kind of position time and time again and with the huge investment that has been pumped into the club over the past two seasons it was not unrealistic for fans to hope avoid a relegation battle at the commencement of the season.
One positive aspect to emerge from Saturday’s fixture was the performance of Kieran Richardson. The ex-Manchester United man has found himself on the fringes of the side this season and often played out of position due to the form of Andy Reid in his usual left-sided midfield position. With Reid’s hamstring injury it looks like Richardson will be given another chance to prove his worth and he got off to an excellent start against Arsenal. Playing as an attacking midfielder he put in an industrious performance and the majority of Sunderland’s quality play went through him. His best moment came when playing an eye-of-the-needle pass through the Gunner’s two centre-backs, putting Jones through on goal, however the striker missed badly. Less encouraging was the performance of George McCartney at left-back. Theo Walcott gave the Northern Ireland international a torrid time, constantly out-pacing him and even out-muscling him. The Sunderland management had to take evasive action, firstly doubling up on Walcott by asking Darren Bent to play deeper on the left side of a midfield five and then by swapping McCartney with Anton Ferdinand who had been given a makeshift central-midfield role. Effectively playing McCartney in central midfield seemed another questionable decision from Bruce, considering that there were specialist midfielders on the bench.
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