Sunderland face Bolton on Saturday knowing a win will see them equal last season’s points tally. It will be far from an easy game, however. Wanderers went to Villa Park on Tuesday night and came away with a 2-1 victory while the Black Cats could only manage a goalless draw at the same ground on Saturday. They have now failed to score in their last four games and have lost the form that defined the earlier months of Martin O’Neill’s time in charge.
The will also be missing Craig Gardener through suspension and both Sebastian Larsson and Kieran Richardson who have been added to the injury list following surgery. Larsson, who has been playing through the pain barrier for weeks hopes he will be fit for Sweden’s Euro 2012 campaign.
It’s a mark of the turn around in the club’s fortunes that the goalless draw at Villa and the nil-nil at home against Wolves the week before – teams which were above Sunderland when O’Neill took charge – have been met with disquiet from the fans.
To that end the Black Cats’ boss warned his players that they would have to get used to a rise in expectations from the Stadium of Light’s faithful and urged his team to perform like one aiming for the top ten and not one struggling against relegation. When asked, he also said he didn’t know whether the squad is a good one which underperformed for Steve Bruce or an average one which, at least to begin with, over performed for him.
While it shouldn’t be forgotten that at the start of this season Steve Bruce was proclaiming the squad to be the best he had had since he had arrived in the North East, that was surely a coded message from O’Neill to his players that if they want to be part of the project going forward now is the time to stake their claim.
The Ulsterman says he will sit down in the close season and assess where the club is going in terms of personnel however, it’s unlikely that the canny operator doesn’t already know which players he wants to push towards the door marked ‘exit’ and which he doesn’t.
One player who falls into the latter category is Craig Gardener who has been persuaded by O’Neill to stay on Wearside for at least another season despite interest from West Brom. There had been suggestions that he was homesick and would return to the Midlands (where he played for O’Neill at Aston Villa) but having started the last 18 games he has committed his future, at least in the short term, to the club.
Niklas Bendtner is one player over who there are still question marks. Despite suggesting he wants to bring in some strikers in the summer, O’Neill has been fairly reticent to commit either way regarding the future of the on-loan Arsenal player thought to be available for around £2.5m.
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