Club Focus – Sunderland – Black Cats face toughest test yet as Manchester United travel to Stadium of Light

In what has been a strong start to the season against mostly formidable opposition, Sunderland may eventually find that their current Premier League position, situated in the bottom half of the table, is a false one.

The North East club were the better side last weekend at Anfield, and were unluckly not to come away with all three points from a game that referee Stuart Atwell will probably want to forget. If nothing else, Steve Bruce has made his side difficult to beat, and the Black Cats have only been defeated once this season, by Roberto Di Matteo’s impressive West Bromwich Albion. However, wins have not materialized either and with only one recorded so far, Bruce needs to convert draws into victories – then his side really will start climbing the table. Despite this, points gained from ties at Anfield and at home to Arsenal are well earned. A new team spirit seems to have been instilled into the squad, and whereas in the past, freak goals like Dirk Kuyt’s last weekend, and Cesc Fabregas’s bizarre deflected opener for Arsenal two weeks ago would have probably been decisive, Sunderland now seem invigorated and instilled with a willingness to haul themselves back into games.

Problems undoubtedly still remain. A win on the road needs to be recorded and quickly. This has been the defining failure of Bruce’s tenure so far, with only two away wins to his name since he took control last year. Also, the team’s limp performance against West Ham United in the Carling Cup is another cause for concern, why – Bruce must ask – did the same team perform with such resolve and character in the two games sandwiching this tepid cup exit? Overall, however, there is plenty for Sunderland supporters to be optimistic about and following Saturday’s game against last years title runners up, the fixtures – on paper at least – get a little easier. Fans may justifiably expect a surge up the table.

Three defenders who missed last weekend’s trip to Anfield are still major doubts for this weekends clash against Manchester United. Anton Ferdinand, John Mensah and Kieran Richardson are all unlikely to play, meaning Michael Turner, Phil Bardsley and the impressive Nedum Onouha are all likely to continue in their stead. At the other end of the pitch, Bruce’s hands will be tied with Danny Welbeck unable to play against his parent club. The Mackems are unlikely to play a 4-4-2 formation, with Bruce this week hinting 4-5-1 is the way forward. Therefore, Asamoah Gyan could start his first full league game for the club, with Darren Bent pushed back into left midfield, the position in which Welbeck has been utilized of late. Lee Cattermole will continue his rehabilitation and hold the midfield with Jordan Henderson, Steed Malbranque and Ahmed El Mohamady looking to get forward in support of Gyan. With United likely to be still recovering from their hard earned win in Valencia during midweek, this is an ideal time for Sunderland to be playing them, and if they can put in a similar performance as they did against Liverpool, their 13 year wait for a home league victory over United may have a chance of coming to an end.

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