Club Focus – Sunderland – Black Cats can thank defensive stability for recent form

Wednesday night’s draw at Aston Villa epitomised the resurgence of the club’s form as the season begins to draw to a close.

A glance at the form table would show Sunderland above Aston Villa which also tells a story of the Birmingham club’s own fortunes, but the Black Cats put in a dogged and determined performance at Villa Park and exhibited a significant amount of counter attacking threat. The north eastern side was virtually unrecognizable from the team that slumped to a limp 2-0 defeat at home to Villa back in December. “I’m happy with the point, but I’m happier with the manner of the performance,” said Steve Bruce after the game. “We were well worthy. It wasn’t as if we were hanging on at any time. We’ve taken the game to them and there were some wonderful performances.”

Both sides approached the game positively and created chances, and although Sunderland had another goal ruled out correctly for offside, a draw was the fair result. Given a chance upfront, Frazier Campbell seems reinvigorated and he took his goal with great confidence after Kieran Richardson’s excellent pass had put him through on goal. He has now netted three times in his last four appearances and the life-long Manchester United supporter is relishing Sunday’s trip to Anfield greater than most.

Sunderland are now on a run that rivals their excellent early season form and it is difficult to play down the importance that a stable back four has had in reversing the club’s fortunes – something Bruce was unable to deploy before Christmas. John Mensah has been outstanding, showing a calmness on the ball that has been noticeably absent from Sunderland’s play for much of the season. His blossoming partnership with Michael Turner has been a real positive in recent weeks. Turner arrived at the beginning of the season from Hull City and has looked uncomfortable at times, with his distribution often a source of weakness. Having Mensah and two other adept players on the ball with Anton Ferdinand and Alan Hutton ever-present alongside him, has meant he has been able to disguise his limitations and concentrate on those attributes that attracted Bruce to pay good money for him – his tackling and his prowess in the air.

Ferdinand continues his makeshift role at left-back, replacing the out-of-form George McCartney, but he has brought much-needed stability to this position. He is limited as an attacking full-back and this is an area that Bruce will surely look to add to in the summer, but presently he has brought increased defensive steadiness to the Wearsider’s backline. Hutton has similarly made the right-sided full-back position his own since arriving in January, but unlike Ferdinand, his main asset is on the attack, bringing an increased fluidity to Sunderland’s play and arguably assisting in Frazier Campbell’s climb in form.

The Black Cats travel to Anfield on Sunday and will harbour ambitions of taking something from the game, although Liverpool will be looking to avenge the bizarre beach ball goal incident that gave Sunderland a memorable win in the reverse fixture. Bruce has an unusually diminutive injury and suspension list, with only Kenwyne Jones definitely ruled out with his hip injury. Fully fit, he is always a useful option for the Sunderland manager, but with Darren Bent and Campbell in such fine form, his loss is not as damaging as it might have been. Andy Reid is also a doubt as he returns from his hamstring injury, but Malbranque’s excellent recent showings mean that even a fully fit Andy Reid would not be guaranteed a place in the side. Confidence and energy has returned to the Wearsider’s play and once again they seem to be relishing encounters with the league’s bigger teams. With the freeing up of Campbell, Sunderland have genuine pace up front and this could cause Liverpool some problems. It is unlikely the side from the north east will repeat their excellent win at the Stadium of Light – unless of course they get further aid from an inflatable ball – but the league’s draw specialists may see another battling point as a realistic target on Merseyside.

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