Club Focus – Sunderland – Relief on Wearside but sterner tests still to come

With his boss Ellis Short watching on from the stands, Steve Bruce must have felt the weight of the world lift off his shoulders as Sunderland stormed to their 4-0 win over Bolton.

Fears of a tense night and of the kind of scrappy, nervous performance that had resulted in three recent disappointing home draws against average opposition were quickly put to bed. Lorik Cana’s looped ball somewhat fortuitously bounced in front of the Wanderer’s goal, presenting Fraizer Campbell with his first league goal for the Black Cats. From then on the home side looked firmly in control with Steed Malbranque particularly impressing. Offered a way back into the team in left midfield, Malbranque looked a constant threat and was unusually energetic. He was integral to the move that provided Darren Bent with his first and Sunderland’s second of the night, before putting Bent through on goal for him to be impeded and awarded the penalty that put the game beyond Bolton. If the former Fulham winger can play with this kind of energy and zeal from now until the end of the season, he will be a real asset for Bruce, who may even be faced with a rare selection dilemma when Andy Reid returns. After the game the Sunderland manager hinted at the relief a first victory in 14 league outings had brought: “We’ve been trying to stay positive and trying to keep our spirits up as it’s been a long, long time. It’s been close a few times but the win was resounding when it came. It gives everybody lift after a difficult time.”

As effective as Sunderland were in attack, the visitors seemed almost intent to please their hosts and Bruce could not have hand picked a more accommodating opposition to ease his predicament. Bolton attacked in numbers, leaving gaps at the back that Sunderland were able to exploit on the break. The visitor’s lack of discipline in defence was summed up when Sam Ricketts was dismissed for his second booking when conceding a penalty. If Owen Coyle had done his homework he would surely have known that this was not the way to set up against a Sunderland side uneasy when in possession and facing a well organized block defence. Sunderland’s next two opponents at the Stadium of Light will possess the means to cause the North East side far more difficulties. First up is Manchester City on Sunday afternoon and Roberto Mancini’s side are unlikely to gift Sunderland the space in the final third that they enjoyed on Tuesday night, and as City sit back they may find their old problems of discomfort in possession coming back to haunt them. Alan Hutton faces a potentially torrid afternoon up against Craig Bellamy, who caused the Wearsiders no end of problems when the sides met back in December.

Sunderland will be without Lorik Cana for the next two games as the Albanian international picked up his tenth booking of the season on Tuesday meaning an automatic two match suspension. Lee Cattermole will therefore be primarily responsible for the holding midfield role and with question marks still hanging over his match fitness, he will need to be back to his best when facing the Manchester side’s combative central midfield. With Reid and Jordan Henderson still doubtful and Kieran Richardson short of form, midfield suspensions and injuries continue to pose a problem for Sunderland which highlights their lack of strength and depth in that department. Up front things look slightly rosier and after scoring the first ever home league hat-trick at the Stadium of Light, Darren Bent will be eager to continue his goal scoring form in the hope of once again catching the eye of England boss Fabio Capello. After seeing his summer capture take the match ball on Tuesday night, Steve Bruce was eager to state his case to the Italian national coach: “I have had a bad enough time trying to pick a team for the last three months, so I am not going to tell Fabio Capello how to do it. All I can say is he (Darren Bent) must be in his thoughts, he has to because of his goalscoring exploits.”

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