With Sunderland still to play Wolverhampton Wanderers, Hull City and Burnley, the Black Cats will have a big say in who goes down this season. However, a victory against the Clarets at the Stadium of Light on Saturday will guarantee Premier League football on Wearside next season.
Even if Sunderland lose all of their remaining games it would still take a minor miracle for them to be relegated from the Premier League so Steve Bruce may have to do his best to motivate a team with only pride to play for. Despite this, Michael Turner sent out a rallying call this week, insisting his team needs to up the tempo and play with more initiative both home and away. There is nothing wrong with the Black Cats’ home form this campaign, with only Chelsea and Aston Villa taking full points away from the North East, but on their travels the Mackems have proved woefully inadequate: “We’ve got to come to a place like this and grab the game by the scruff of the neck and we haven’t done that,” the big central defender said, talking about his side’s recent game against West Ham: “We have to learn quickly to move forward. It’s something that’s been going on all season, we get a good win and then go away and let ourselves down.” Sunderland supporters would wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments – it is a state of affairs that has dogged the Wearsiders’ all season long and they must learn to be consistent. Their home form suggests they have it in them to challenge the top teams but take away this and one win on the road says it all.
One of the main reasons for Sunderland’s upturn in form over the last few weeks have been the excellent performances of Steed Malbranque and this week the Belgian-born winger claimed his future is with the club amid speculation he may look to move on at the end of the season. He told BBC Newcastle “Of course my future is with Sunderland, no question about that. I think recently I am in good form and it’s good to be in the first team.” The former Tottenham Hotspur man has at times seemed an enigma since arriving on Wearside shortly before the 2008/09 season. He got off to a fantastic start, laying on the majority of the goals that Djibril Cisse netted during the first half of that term. However, as Roy Keane departed so did Malbranque’s form and despite the incoming Bruce turning around the fortunes of the side at the beginning of this campaign, Malbranque did not look quite up to the part and began to frustrate supporters. However, being dropped to the bench for a spell – and being on the receiving end of disciplinary action by the club for an alleged break of curfew – seemed to do the trick. The message that he had to up his game was seemingly heard loud and clear and Malbranque has been the Black Cats’ top performer in recent weeks with his name now regularly being sung by the Sunderland support who will no doubt want this attitude to continue into next season and beyond.
Burnley travel to Wearside on Saturday hoping for an unprecedented second away win on the bounce and the manager will undoubtedly opt for his favoured 4-4-2 formation. John Mensah remains sidelined with a hamstring injury meaning the Sunderland manager will be unable to pick his favoured back four. Expect Alan Hutton to return to right-back with Anton Ferdinand and Turner to be the central partnership in defence. At left-back Bruce may opt to deploy Kieran Richardson in a makeshift role with the premise that – like Hutton on the other side – he will be able to get forward to support the attacking play. In midfield Lorik Cana is doubtful and struggling with a groin injury so David Meyler is likely to continue in the centre with Lee Cattermole’s fitness also a question. Malbranque will surely be among the first names on the team sheet on the left-wing but from then on it is less clear. Darren Bent will begin upfront but Bruce will be faced with a tough decision with a fully fit Kenwyne Jones available for selection. Jones improved things greatly when he came on last week against West Ham and should start the game, but this would mean either Fraizer Campbell or Jordan Henderson being undeservedly dropped.
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