Up in the North East they are starting to look nervously over their shoulders. Having been in the top half of the table earlier in the season, the Black Cats season has gone into freefall, putting them within touching distance of the relegation battle. The exit of top scorer Darren Bent appears to have exposed a lack of strength in depth that is undermining Sunderland’s run in.
Despite Bent’s goals, many predicted that his departure to Aston Villa in January might not be too costly for the Black Cats. Although reliable in front of goal, the feeling was that losing a supposedly one-dimensional player could free up the rest of the team. Evidence seemed favourable; the famous 3-0 win away at Chelsea came in his absence. Asamoah Gyan and the talented Danny Welbeck, started to find their feet and, on paper, appeared to be more than adequate replacements.
Instead Sunderland’s form has fallen off a cliff; a measly nine goals in nine games since Bent left underlining the problem. Their last victory was a 2-1 triumph over Blackpool at the end of January, their first game without Bent. Injuries to key players have been a contributing factor to their seven defeats in eight since. Welbeck joined long-term absentee Frazer Campbell on the sideline with injury, leaving Gyan in a forlorn battle to lead the line on his own.
Having seemingly troughed with a miserable 5-0 defeat at Manchester City, the Black Cats followed it up with a 3-2 home defeat against relegation battle escapees West Bromwich Albion, who leapfrogged Sunderland as a result. They now find themselves just six points above the relegation zone, the same amount Bent’s goals helped them earn in the opening half dozen games in the season.
Although 38 points at this stage is a reasonable total that should still see them comfortably survive given the amount of teams below them who still have to play each other, their alarming slide has not been lost on boss Steve Bruce: “I
With a number of loan players due to return to their clubs in the summer, the squad will be looking even more threadbare. Bruce’s desire to keep Welbeck looks set to be thwarted by Manchester United, while Sulley Muntari and John Mensah – two Ghanaians with Champions League experience – may end up back at Inter and Lyon respectively. Bruce will already be considering how he can plug the additional holes that their departures will leave.
There should be money available from Bent’s move to add to the handy capture of Stephane Sessegnon. However going into the new season on the back of a such a poor finish to the previous one has spelt trouble for a number of clubs in the past. If they do not pick up soon, Bruce will need to use all his nous in the transfer market to ensure Sunderland is not another.