Club Focus – Sunderland – Steady but slow progress for Bruce

As Sunderland prepare for the visit of Birmingham City, Steve Bruce continues to assert that his team’s priority is catching the clubs above rather than avoiding the teams below.

It has been a disappointing season for the Wearsiders who are still far too close to the relegation zone for comfort having only won one of their last sixteen league games. However, the feeling is that if the side can negotiate their way through the current rough patch, there could be real rewards in the seasons to come. To look at their current run from a glass half full perspective, Sunderland have lost one of their last seven games and it has been a very long time since they have played badly and lost at the same time. They have been well below par in some very disappointing home draws, but the fact that little by little, they manage to pick up points suggests they are not a team in the pits of despair. Two defeats at home all season is testament to this. Their current run is bad, but the side do not seem in the kind of terminal decline that many teams below them find themselves in. That there are three worse teams than Sunderland in the Premier League may not be the greatest cause for celebration for the red and white fanatic, but the Wearside club will be playing Premier League football next season.

Alex McLeish brings his Birmingham City side to the Stadium of Light in what is a game both sides will look to gain points from. Sunderland will have to counter Birmingham’s block defence and they have often struggled when playing against teams lower down in the league who come solely for a draw. The Blues will probably set up with this exact goal and the Black Cats will need creativity and guile in order to break through one of the most impressive defences in the league. This will be highlighted by the absence of Kenwyne Jones – sidelined for up to a month through injury. The option to go long – that the North East side have often resorted to – will not present itself nearly as much on Saturday and they will need to vastly improve on the ball in order to pose Alex McLeish’s team real problems. The continued renaissance of Steed Malbranque will be of particular importance, his midfield scheming has been hugely impressive of late and Bruce will hope he can play with the same motivation and energy he mustered during the last game against Manchester City. If Sunderland can play like they did for much of the first half of that game they will be in with a huge chance of coming away with the much needed points.

The injury to Jones means there may well be a real chance for Fraizer Campbell to stake a claim to a place in his favoured role of centre-forward. The 3.5 million signing has not impressed so far this season, but perhaps it is unfair to criticize him as he has mostly played out of position. In a team so devoid at times of midfield creativity his lack of experience has been exposed, but when supposed midfielders have looked exactly the same he can not really be blamed for looking out of his depth. Despite this, he has remained positive and has no complaints of being deployed in this makeshift position: “I don’t mind playing out their on the wing. Obviously I’m a striker, but I have enjoyed myself over the last couple of games and I don’t mind playing there.” Jordan Henderson made an energetic second half appearance in the Black Cat’s last outing and his energy and maturity beyond his years will be a great asset to the side in the run in. Andy Reid could also play a part but Sunderland’s most creative player this season may find it harder to get back into the team than he would have imagined with Malbranque’s impressive displays in the left sided berth. The Wearsider’s defence has suddenly been threatened with stability, with Alan Hutton, John Mensah, Michael Turner and Anton Ferdinand all playing well in recent games and expected to begin against Birmingham. After using pretty much a different back four for every game of the first half of the season, Steve Bruce will be relieved to finally have a settled backline.

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