2,251 Sunderland fans are en-route to South Yorkshire for today’s Boxing Day feast at Bramall Lane. Sheffield United are our hosts for this one at a venue we haven’t visited for over thirteen years.
The Blades are in a poor run of form and haven’t won a league game since mid-November. United’s season may well be balancing out following that early storm up the Championship on the back of last year’s promotion from League One.
Sheff U beat us in September at the Stadium of Light of course, as the wheels rapidly fell off Simon Grayson’s initial bright start to his Sunderland tenure. The Black Cats were shipping goals for fun back then though, and Chris Coleman has brought some new-found defensive steel since taking charge. That may be just as well as the Blades are the division’s sixth highest scorers and have still managed to hit nine in their last six despite not registering a win in that half dozen.
Coleman may be forced to shuffle his pack if Darron Gibson fails to recover from a groin injury. The former Everton midfielder has looked rejuvenated under the new regime but with Lee Cattermole out until the new year, Sunderland have limited options in the middle, though Didier Ndong is surely ready to make his first start since early November after coming off the bench in the last two.
Bryan Oviedo may be ready for a start after making his return to the squad last weekend. With the Costa Rican defender demonstrating an ability at wing-back when on international duty that we haven’t seen yet at Sunderland, he may fit in well to Chris Coleman’s current preferred 5-3-2. Dropping Donald Love - who had a few dodgy moments against Fulham - would make sense, enabling Adam Matthews to switch to his natural right-hand side.
Vaughan and Grabban have hardly looked like a match made in heaven as a pairing up front but the latter continues to display his goal-scoring touch whilst the former’s ear-cupping display after managing his second strike of the season at Burton will continue to look increasingly premature the longer it takes him to manage a third of the campaign.
The alternative would be to switch to a flat back four, slot Ndong next to Gibson as a pair of holding midfielders to keep things tight, and unleash Aiden McGeady on the Blades, supporting Grabban positioned up front alone.
United have a few issues in the middle of the park too; Wales international David Brooks is out with a severe case of tonsillitis, as is central midfielder John Fleck. Striker Ched Evans is also sidelined, as is defender Kieron Freeman.
Today’s opposition boss Chris Wilder was part of the United team defeated by Sunderland in the 1998 Play-off semi finals and believes his side’s draw with Villa last time out is a sign the Blades are back on course. Chris Coleman will be desperate to finish 2017 with a few more on the board and dig himself out of the bottom three by the time the new year gets underway.
Prediction Punt: Haven’t seen enough improvement in Chris Coleman’s Sunderland yet to fancy getting three points, but a draw will be a good result: 2-2.