Preview: A New Era Starts Here

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: New Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill looks on from the stands during the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sunderland at Molineux on December 4, 2011 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Okay, I thought I had a tough enough job last week trying to second guess Eric Black’s team selection but this is a whole different ball game. As Martin took his first press conference at the Stadium of Light since beginning his, seemingly inevitable, liaison with his boyhood club he was keen to emphasise a willingness to wipe the slate clean and allow the squad to start afresh. So where does that leave us going in to an already vital game so early in O’Neill’s regime? Can the much maligned Marcos Angeleri finally step from the shadows to become the next Dani Alves? Of course not, but the likes of Craig Gardner, Ryan Noble and even James McClean will certainly have been turning up to the training ground with an extra spring in their step this week.

I try to get to the bottom of the conundrum that is O’Neill’s first team selection, how Blackburn are likely to lineup, a classic encounter between the two clubs, some betting advice from myself and tipster guru @dickpundit and also a song to get us in the mood for kickoff.

Sunderland Team News

Speculation began to filter through on Thursday morning that Nicklas Bendtner may be struggling with injury, speculation however that the injury was sustained following a thoroughly deserved kick up the backside following his blasé performance at Molineaux remain unfounded. Nicklas' inclusion looks touch and go.

So with that said I don’t believe we will actually see too many changes in the formation and personnel employed by O’Neill but what we will see is a lot more organisation, shape and discipline from the side, all of which was desperately lacking from a Steve Bruce side.

Therefore we will start with Westwood between the sticks, who has done little wrong since his emergence in the side apart from possibly appeal for Jamie O’Hara’s blatant handball rather than prepare himself for Steven Fletcher’s shot if you were to be super critical.

Could O’Neill’s fresh start be afforded to Titus Bramble who prior to his off the field misdemeanours was a permanent fixture of Sunderland’s backline? Quite possibly but I believe for Sunday’s critical clash that Martin is likely to look to keep a settled backline with Phil Bardsley and Keiran Richardson sandwiching the experienced John O’Shea, himself struggling with an injury, and Wes Brown.

As Michael Gunn from Celtic site Tic Tac Tic eluded to in our midweek piece "How was it for you?", O’Neill places a lot of importance on set pieces, therefore expect Sebastian Larrson to be a permanent figure in our side, not that he wasn’t already. Martin is also known to be a keen subscriber to the use of pacey widemen, which could open the door for James McClean but I believe Stephane Sessegnon will reprise his wide role.

The central midfield positions are, in my opinion, there for the taking now. We have pretty much seen every possible combination already this season. With Lee Cattermole set to miss out through suspension (hazaaar!) that leaves us with anyone from David Vaughan, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner and David Meyler. Hazarding a guess I think O’Neill will plump for a duo of Vaughan and Gardner. Craig found first team football frustrating hard to come by under Bruce but having worked together at Aston Villa Gardner could be one of the first individuals we see flourish thanks to O’Neill’s exceptional motivational skills. A canny goal against Manchester United Reserves in the week will have helped too.

That just leaves us with the forward line, an area of the pitch where we are worryingly short on options. If the talk surrounding Bendtner’s fitness, despite his Wolves performance, are true he would be a big loss, which would see Ji Dong-Won and Ryan Noble get the nod. Whilst the jury is still out on Ji, I’m sure I would not be alone in saying I would welcome Noble, finally, being given a chance.

Blackburn Rovers Team News

The maligned Steve Kean has close to a full squad to pick from with Vincenzo Grella and Ryan Nelson the side's only standing injuries. Steven N'Zonzi will have to sit the clash out however serving the second of his three match ban following a retrospective charge for elbowing Ryan Shawcross and the French midfielder will be a big loss to Blackburn who will have to reshuffle their pack again.

Kean will be expecting "big" things from his forward Yakubu who rolled back the years last weekend with a haul of four goals which fired Blackburn to a vital win over Swansea and has an impressive nine goals to his name since his deadline day arrival.

David Hoilett is also one to watch this weekend after a series of performances have caught the eye of some of the league's "bigger" clubs. The pacey young Canadian could really test Richardson's left-back credentials.

Predicted Line-ups:

SAFC: Westwood, Bardsley, O'Shea, Brown, Richardson, Larsson, Gardner, Vaughan, Sessegnon, Ji, Noble

BRFC: Robinson, Lowe, Dann, Samba, Givet, Hoilett, Pederson, Dunn, Rochina, Formica, Yakubu

Classic Encounter

This is a clash that has hardly set the pulses racing over the years, however in the corresponding fixture last season Sunderland came out victorious with a comfortable 3-0 win. The goals were shared between Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck, what we would give to have those options in the current squad. Bruce dedicated the victory to Sam Allardyce, the former Blackburn boss who he felt had been unfairly treated following his dismissal from Ewood Park. Lets hope Kean isn't given afforded the same opportunity this year.

Get Rich Quick

Fancy a flutter on the match? I have sourced the predictions of twitter betting tipster @dickpundit to help provide a more impartial opinion on the betting guide. If you like a bet, are a fan of alternative rock music, or both, Dick is well worth a follow.

Dick likes the look of:

  • Sunderland to win - 5/6
  • Over 2.5 goals - 4/5
  • Yakubu to score anytime - 5/2

One for the more romantic SAFC out there would be to back Ryan Noble to bag his first goal for the senior side, first or last goalscorer is available at 6/1.

Or if you expect SAFC to be more of a threat from set pieces under O'Neill, a tactic he is know to employ, Wes Brown is available at 40/1 for first or last goalscorer, or 14/1 anytime.

Song For Whoever

I've gone for a cover from one of my favourite British bands. OK, some of their latest material is a little self-indulgent on Matt Bellamy's part, but damn the older albums were fantastic.

"It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me and I'm feeling good"... Kind of sums it all up, don't you think?

Prediction:

The Stadium of Light should be rocking with excitement come kick off on Sunday and with that extra lift behind them and Martin O'Neill on the sidelines I can only see a 2-1 Sunderland win.

Keep the faith and sing your heart's out for the lads!

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