Preview: Time To Get This Season Going

Richard Heathcote

With a typically controversial Wear-Tyne derby dispensed of for at least another six months, its back to some semblance of normalcy this weekend. Sunderland travel to Stoke City tomorrow afternoon keen to replicate their last visit there - a 1-0 victory in February - but will hope that the snow that bombarded this fixture eight months ago is absent this time around.

Sunderland Team News

For Martin O'Neill's visiting Black Cats, Wes Brown remains sidelined while fellow central defender Titus Bramble is expected to miss out with a hip problem. More positively, Phil Bardsley looks set to complete his return from injury - the full-back was an unused substitute in last weekend's derby - while Lee Cattermole is almost certain to rejoin the starting line-up having served his three-match ban for a red card at MK Dons in the League Cup last month.

Stoke City Team News

Tony Pulis' side are fairly bereft of injury woes, with Glenn Whelan in contention for a return to the first-team after having rejoined training again on Thursday following a hamstring problem. The likelihood is that Whelan will return alongside Steven N'Zonzi in central midfield - with ex-Sunderland midfielder Dean Whitehead likely to return to the bench once more.

Predicted Lineups

Stoke City: Begovic; Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; N'Zonzi, Whelan; Walters, Adam, Kightly, Crouch

Sunderland: Mignolet; Bardsley, Cuellar, O'Shea, Rose; Larsson, Gardner, Cattermole, Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher

Key Matchup: John O'Shea (and Carlos Cuellar) Vs Peter Crouch

In a game where neither of the two sides have proven themselves adept this season at keeping the ball, despite Stoke's claims to be moving to a more possession-based game, don't be surprised to see the key tussle being played out somewhere in the stratosphere.

Up front for the home side, Peter Crouch poses an unorthodox problem, standing head and shoulders (literally) above all-comers. With The Potters likely to focus on their lone striker holding the ball up, as well as seeking to gain an advantage from set-pieces, one feels that O'Shea and defensive partner Carlos Cuellar will have to be at the top of their game to nullify Crouch's unique threat.

Recent Form: DLWDL

Draw: Stoke City 1-1 Manchester City (Crouch 15; Javi Garcia 35)

Loss: Chelsea 1-0 Stoke City (A. Cole 85)

Win: Stoke City 2-0 Swansea City (Crouch 16, 36)

Draw: Liverpool 0-0 Stoke City

Loss: Manchester United 4-2 Stoke City (Rooney 27, 65, Scholes 41, Welbeck 46; Rooney (og) 11, Kightly 58)

Last Time Around: Stoke City 0-1 Sunderland, 04/02/12

A snow-swept Brittania Stadium was the setting for the last tussle between these two sides, when an individual effort from James McClean was enough to secure all three points for Sunderland. The game was one of controversy, as Stoke were forced to play the entire second half with ten men, following Robert Huth's dismissal for a lunge on David Meyler. Stoke boss Tony Pulis would go on to lambast Meyler for his part in getting Huth sent off, but how Pulis could condone a late, high, out-of-control challenge in such conditions is anyone's guess.

The football itself was decidedly poor, with the white blanket covering the pitch dictating proceedings. Left with a one man disadvantage, Stoke resorted to their famed long ball tactics more than ever, but could find no way through a resolute Sunderland rearguard as Martin O'Neill's men completed a professional task in difficult conditions.

The Ref: Mark Halsey

Three Premier League matches this term have already resulted in two red cards from Mr Halsey - it was he who dismissed Jonjo Shelvey when Liverpool and Manchester United met a month ago. He also ensured Tom Huddlestone saw red when Spurs entertained Norwich earlier this season but, despite overseeing the feisty Liverpool-United affair, Halsey has only showed five yellow cards in the top division so far.

His last time in charge of Stoke was back in April, when they overcame then-bottom side Wolves, 2-1. As for Sunderland, Halsey hasn't met Lee Cattermole et al. since last year's dull 0-0 draw at Swansea City. In a career spanning thirteen years, Halsey has only dismissed one Sunderland player, and that was in his first game in charge of the Black Cats - when Steve Bould saw red at West Ham way back in 1999. Also, in Sunderland's disastrous 2002/03 season, Halsey was the referee in two of their paltry four league wins that year - against Leeds United at Elland Road, and against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light.

What The Managers Said

Tony Pulis:

If you look at the records so far, with the goals [Steven Fletcher has] scored, obviously he's going to be a danger. We might have tried [to sign Fletcher] but we've tried with a lot of players.

But they've got good midfield players. If you look at Adam Johnson; Larsson's very good off set plays. McClean is good on the other side. Sessegnon can win games.

We're trying to evolve and turn into a team that will play through the pitch quickly, but can play better small passes.

There's more continuity and build-up, but it's always through the pitch.

Martin O'Neill:

Stoke have had a fantastic time over the last few years - ever since they won promotion. The manager has done a fantastic job there and has a great relationship with the chairman.

In this league, different teams play different styles. That's what makes it very interesting. You know that when you go to Stoke you'll be in for a battle from start to finish.

It's up to me to be able to change things and get players performing - that's my job.

I am sure in the course of time [things will change] - and when I say course of time, I don't mean in six months time. We are not a million miles away, I think.

On Lee Cattermole:

It's time out and you sit and watch games from the stand and feel as if you want to be involved, and you realise that you should be.

I would like to think that maybe he would have learned a lesson - but it's happened to him before and he has come back. I am hoping he can do because he's very important to us.

Roker Report Predicts

Stoke sit just one place ahead of Sunderland currently, and are tied on points despite having played a game more. Still, The Potters pose Sunderland a tricky test, having only conceded one goal in their opening three league games this term. The Black Cats have won just one game this season in the league, and one since March - furthermore, their last victory on the road in the Premier League came at the Britannia Stadium in that February tussle.

This will be a tricky affair for both sides, with Sunderland and Martin O'Neill desperate for their attacking players to finally click. As we've hinted at in our predicted line-up, don't be surprised if one of the three usual attacking midfielders (for us, James McClean) misses out. Stoke are themselves in a transitionary phase, seeking to change their reputation for long-ball football. The overriding sense is that this one will be, yet again, a draw.

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