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Preview: Sunderland Vs Fulham

Forget Wimbledon. Forget The Lions. Forget The Ashes. FOOTBALL IS BACK!

Michael Regan

Sunderland Team News

With the curtain finally rising on the new season Sunderland's only real serious injury concerns at this stage lie with long-term absentee Steven Fletcher, who despite making encouraging strides on the training ground is still around a month away from returning to action. There is of course the suspected broken foot belonging to Phil Bardsley but I'm going to stick my neck out here and make a prediction that this won't impact Di Canio's first team plans one iota.

One blow however has come in the shape of Wes Brown, who despite an impressive pre-season which saw the former Manchester United man return from the brink of retirement to a return to first team football. Brown sat out Sunderland's last pre-season game in Denmark and a minor knock is expected to see him miss the season opener but is expected to be back in full training next week.

Modibo Diakite is unlikely to replace Brown in the first team come Saturday afternoon. Despite overcoming a hamstring injury sustained early in the summer the former Lazio man is likely to be short of match fitness and may sit this one out.

This ultimately means a choice to be made between Valetin Roberge and Carlos Cuellar.

Despite the continued absence of the talismanic Steven Fletcher, Sunderland have a plethora of new talent from which to choose from, with no fewer than ten new faces through the door so far this summer.

Most recently, Ondrej Celustka, a Czech right-back who has joined the North East outfit on a season long loan and can be expected to figure in the starting eleven immediately, especially given Craig Gardner's suspension.

It will be interesting to see who gets the nod between the sticks for the Black Cats on Saturday. Gone is the stability that Simon Mignolet so admirably provided over the last few years and instead we seemingly have both Keiren Westwood and Vito Mannone battling for a starting spot as neither have been assigned the number one shirt, much to the distaste of squad number purists across the land.

Fulham Team News

Much like their North East opponents, Fulham moved swiftly in the transfer window this summer, releasing a number of players before recruiting the likes of Fernando Amorebieta and Derek Boateng on free transfers. Martin Jol also paid out £1.3m to make Sasha Riether's loan from Cologne permanent, a deal which has been heralded as somewhat of a bargain given Riether's impact on the Cottager's last term.

With the experienced Mark Schwarzer leaving, Jol also acted quickly, bringing in Maarten Stekelenburg from Roma which may just prove to be a very astute signing given the Dutchman's pedigree.

There has also been the recent addition of the temperamental Adel Taarabt, who is unplayable on his day and a potential partnership with Dimitar Berbatov offers a mouth-watering prospect for fans of inexplicably laid back yet bed-wettingly sexy football.

Talk has also emerged linking our old mate Darren Bent with a move to Craven Cottage which would only serve to ramp up what is already set to be a great atmosphere on Saturday should the former Sunderland man figure.

Of course it would be remiss not to mention the returning Keiran Richardson, who will always be fondly remembered on Wearside for some reason or other...

Predicted Lineups

Sunderland: Westwood; Celutska, O'Shea, Roberge, Colback; Johnson, Larsson, Cabral, Giaccherini; Sessegnon; Altidore

Fulham: Stekenlenburg; Riether, Hangeland, Amorebieta, Richardson; Dejagah, Sidwell, Boateng, Taarabt; Ruiz, Berbatov

Key Matchup: Ondrej Celutska Vs Adel Taarabt

It looks likely to be a battle of the two loanee's on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland's new recruit, Ondrej Celutska, looks set to be given a potentially tough welcome to the Premier League from the Morocca, Adel Taarabt.

Taarabt's inconsistency is well documented, however what can't be discounted is his genuine ability and on his day he can be a fearsome opponent for any defender, especially with the ball at his feet and moving at pace.

Celutska is an unknown quantity for Sunderland fans and could well be given a stiff test on his debut should Taarabt perform anywhere near the level he is capable of. On the other hand, the Czech could put in a debut performance of Stan Varga proportions and quell the threat Taarabt poses. An intriguing battle for sure.

Recent Form: WDLDWW (Pre-season)

10/08/13: Parma 1-2 Fulham
05/08/13: Fulham 1-1 Real Betis
28/07/13: Werder Bremen 1-0 Fulham
20/07/13: Saprissa 2-2 Fulham
17/07/13: Alajuelense 1-3 Fulham
14/07/13: C.S. Cartagines 0-3 Fulham

Last Time Around: Sunderland 2-2 Fulham, 03/03/13

Sunderland headed into the corresponding fixture last season without a goal in front of their home fans in over a month and a half. Within thirty-five minutes they were two goals behind. Fulham's opener came from the penalty spot, with Berbatov coolly (how else) dispatching his spot kick, following what appeared to be a poor decision as Dejagah went down easily following a Craig Gardner challenge.

The visitors doubled their lead with a counter attacking goal. One minute Sunderland had won a corner and the next Mignolet palmed away a Dejagah shot which fell nicely into the path of Sasha Riether who had the easiest of tap ins to secure his first goal in English football.

It looked bleak at that stage for Martin O'Neill's side. However the Black Cats rallied and pulled one goal back almost immediately when Craig Gardner hammered home a spot kick of his own after Danny Graham was pulled back by Senderos in the box.

Sunderland finally seemed to wake from their slumber at this point and pressed for an equaliser which came via a counter attack of our own, which was started by a fantastic, point-blank save from Simon Mignolet, which lead to Stephane Sessegnon carrying the ball down field, finding Adam Johnson before the ball eventually fell to Sess again who brought the score level.

In fact the home fans would leave the ground a little disappointed not to have won the game which is quite a feat given the circumstances in the first half.

The Ref: Neil Swarbrick

Forty-three year old Swarbrick takes charge of the season opener on Saturday having dished out four red cards and ninety-six yellow cards in the Premier League last season.

Interestingly the first Premier League fixture which Swarbrick officiated was Fulham vs Sunderland at Craven Cottage back in December of 2010.

What The Managers Said

Paolo Di Canio:

The target is to establish this club in the Premier League, without suffering like we did last year.

We've brought in very good quality players and the ambition is to play better football if possible, more attacking football. Football that can entertain our fans but also be effective to win and give them that satisfaction.

This is a massive club. Not like Manchester United or Arsenal with the history, but with the potential. Even Giaccherini who played with Juventus who have the new stadium and facilities, he was surprised with the Academy and the facilities, that they were incredible.

We have to be careful against Fulham. They have Boateng who will sit in front of the back four, Ruiz who is a wonderful player in the middle and Berbatov who can do everything.

The home fans however can help change things, and make new players welcome and turn the game into an advantage for us. A hostile environment, if something goes wrong, the fans will push and all players will adjust and

Martin Jol:

If you look at Jozy Altidore, he was the top scorer in Holland and he did very well for the American national team. He didn't do so well at the start of his career because he was young.

He scored a hat-trick yesterday against Bosnia, and they are no mugs, so he's very good. Of course they've got Steven Fletcher as well, and they've got a lot of players up front who can fill in on the flank.

They spent a lot of money on Adam Johnson and I think he's a very talented boy. In midfield with Sebastian Larsson they've got a specialist with set-pieces, so I think their balance is good but, hopefully for us, we are better than them. But it's an away game.

Tactically, they play in a normal style, there's nothing difficult about it, we play in a normal style so it's always about players who can make the difference. Hopefully my players up front can make a difference and the rest will follow.

Roker Report Predicts

Saturday is shaping up to be a fascinating fixture for many reasons. Sunderland fans will be eager to see their new look side in action and will be particularly keen to see the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore make their debut appearances along with the rest of the new recruits. There will also be expectation, set by Di Canio himself, for the home side to play a more attacking and positive style of football.

However Fulham won't be heading to the North East to make up the numbers. Martin Jol himself has made some astute signings and in the likes of Berbatov, Taarabt, and Ruiz, to name just a few, they are certainly capable of causing Sunderland some problems.

Then there is also the added Darren Bent factor which looks set to crank the atmosphere up even further.

A tough one to call but I just have a feeling that Sunderland will just about edge this one and get their campaign off to a winning start with a 2-1 win.

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