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Preview: Gus Aims To Be The Villain In Villa's Horror Show

Sunderland take on Aston Villa, and it's yet another six-pointer for the home side.

Michael Regan

Sunderland Team News

Long-term absentees Keiren Westwood and Carlos Cuellar continue their injury-offs, whilst John O'Shea still looks to be out with the injury that's forced him to miss the last two fixtures. Wes Brown, meanwhile, will serve the last of his three game suspension against Aston Villa.

This means that Modibo Diakite and Valentin Roberge look set to continue as Sunderland's centre half pairing despite a poor showing from the pair, especially in the first half, in the last match.

Fabio Borini is also a doubt after his collapse at half-time versus Cardiff, although he did return to the North-East on Sunday after spending Saturday night in hospital.

Unfortunately the game comes too soon for new signing Marcos Alonso, who the club have confirmed should be available for a debut against Carlisle at the weekend rather than the New Year's Day fixture.

Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Jack Colback and Ondrej Celustka were all named on the bench for Saturday's game against Cardiff and could all be in line for a recall as Gus Poyet seeks to rotate his squad to avoid fatigue.

Fletcher and Colback seem especially likely to earn starting berths after impressive goal-scoring appearances as substitutes from both.

Aston Villa Team News

Paul Lambert is facing an injury crisis with Nathan Baker his only fit and available centre half. Ciaran Clark's fifth yellow card of the season sees him suspended for this game, whilst utility man Chris Herd is sidelined with injury, as is summer-signing Jores Okore who has been out nearly the entire season. Villa captain Ron Vlaar has been absent with a calf injury, but Lambert could be forced to rush him back early for New Year's Day.

As well as their struggles in defence Villa are also without Christian Benteke, although considering the Belgian's awful form since September his absence has been an issue even when he makes the starting line-up.

Predicted Line-Ups:

Sunderland vs Aston Villa - Football tactics and formations

Sunderland (4-3-3): Mannone; Celustka, Diakite, Roberge, Bardsley; Ki, Cattermole, Colback; Johnson, Fletcher, Giaccherini

Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Bacuna, Baker, Vlaar, Luna; Westwood, Delph, El Ahmadi; Weimann, Kozak, Agbonlahor

Key Match-Up: Steven Fletcher Vs The Aston Villa Defence

With Nathan Baker an unreliable presence at the best of times and Ron Vlaar, if he even makes the starting XI, likely to be held together by bolts and gaffer tape, this game represents an excellent chance for Steven Fletcher to mark a return to form.

His arrival at half-time was crucial in Sunderland's comeback against Cardiff, and he capped his performance off with an excellent goal that shows that, if given chances in the box, the Scot is still a deadly finisher.

With a defence that hardly ranks as the most formidable in the Premier League between him and the goal, you would hope that Fletcher would be licking his lips at the prospect of re-establishing himself as the side's first choice striker over the so far disappointing Jozy Altidore.

Recent Form: DLLLLW

Draw: Aston Villa 1-1 Swansea (Agbonlahor; Lamah)

Loss: Aston Villa 0-1 Crystal Palace (Gayle)

Loss: Stoke 2-1 Aston Villa (Adam, Crouch; Kozak)

Loss: Aston Villa 0-3 Manchester United (Welbeck 2, Cleverley)

Loss: Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa (Sidwell, Berbatov)

Win: Southampton 2-3 Aston Villa (Rodriguez, Osvaldo; Agbonlahor, Kozak, Delph)

Last Time Around: Sunderland 0-1 Aston Villa (03/11/2012)

With both sides in the midst of rotten runs of form, Villa edged the last fixture at the Stadium of Light courtesy of a second-half Gabriel Agbonlahor goal.

Typically of many of Martin O'Neill's matches after the initial few months following his appointment, Sunderland laboured throughout and ultimately failed to prise apart the Villa defence. This game came after a month where Sunderland failed to score altogether, and at this point in the season Steven Fletcher was still the only Sunderland player to have scored in the Premier League.

Considering even in such dire straights Sunderland still managed to stay up last season perhaps offers some hope for this year, as Sunderland are currently offering up a much better style of football and, although 0-0s are becoming a feature of this campaign also, we are still mostly managing to score in our home fixtures at least.

The Ref: Mike Jones

Mike Jones takes charge of his first Sunderland game of the season tomorrow against Aston Villa.

So far this season the 45-year old has overseen 10 Premier League games, and dished out 24 yellow cards, one red and given one penalty.

Sunderland are however Jones' third most refereed team, with him taking charge of 19 previous games. In those games Sunderland have a record of 6 wins, 4 defeats and 9 losses. He's also given us 34 yellow cards in that time, and given 3 penalties to the opposition.

What The Manager (And A Player) Said

Gus Poyet:

We need to be ready, we need to do the basics.

We need to make sure we go back to the clean sheets, the control of the game, taking chances and making sure that we dictate the pace of the game.

I think the connection between the fans and the players is paying dividends; it's giving everybody that extra bit of energy and belief.

Gabby Agbonlahor:

We know it's going to be tough, they'll look at us and think they can get at us. But we beat them there last year, so there's no reason why we can't do it again.

[However] At the moment, it's a case of stopping the rot. Picking up points, hopefully in every game we play.

Roker Report Predicts

We keep having must-win games, and by and large we are failing to win them. However, our performance against Everton and the brilliant comeback (even if it was just for a draw) against Cardiff do offer hope for Sunderland yet. The visitors are also in absolutely horrendous form, with a draw against Swansea at the weekend and a win against Southampton earlier in the month their only positive results in their last six. They are also a side missing last season's key player Christian Benteke through injury, though he has also been largely appalling this season even when fit - as demonstrated particularly ineptly when we visited Villa Park earlier in the season.

In their last few games Villa have almost totally ceded possession to the opposition, clocking up just 27% against Swansea at the weekend. However, it is worth bearing in mind that they managed a draw against Swansea and a counter-attacking win over Southampton when they also "enjoyed" a similarly dismal share of the ball. Sunderland are not a side that are particularly adept at breaking down a packed defence, so if Villa come with a mentality to just sit deep and break through the pace of Agbonlahor we could be in for a frustrating day.

That said, Lambert's side really are particularly poor at the moment, and Gus Poyet will doubtless be targeting them as a team that we have to overcome. He made his frustration known to the players when they failed to score against a defensive Norwich side a few weeks ago, and he'll be keen for the team to act on his criticisms and grab a win to extend our 5-game unbeaten run. I'm not predicting a display of liquid football, but I do think that Sunderland will just manage to nab a crucial goal against a team that, so long as we are careful to watch for counter-attacks, really do not offer a significant threat. 1-0 to Sunderland for me.

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