Sunderland travel to Selhurst Park this weekend buoyed by a resolute defensive display that secured a valuable point at home to Tottenham on Tuesday evening. There they will face an old friend turned foe - Sam Allardyce and his Crystal Palace team, in a game that could be crucial come season’s end.
It’s an odd situation to be squaring up against Allardyce after his heroics last season; it feels like one of those awkward moments where you see an ex with a new partner, but only you should never have really split up and you haven’t done so well since they left. Their parents forced them away from you, but then kicked them out for some scandal that nobody was really sure was a scandal, and now they’ve had to shack up with someone else obviously not as attractive as you in an attempt at getting back on the straight and narrow. They’re not as passionate and caring as you, but they’ve got a decent sum of money to play with and have made sure you’re ex gets what she wants. The story of Big Sam and Sunderland is almost Shakespearean in its premise.
Moyes and his men, however, will be looking at this weekend’s trip to London with one eye on the table. Currently sitting in 20th position, 5 points from safety, our chances of survival appear relatively bleak. Moyes will be hoping that his side’s spirited draw earlier this week will serve as something of a platform from which we can launch ourselves into a good run of form.
Palace will also have earmarked this fixture as an opportunity to get points on the board - as will most teams for the remainder of this season. They too will come into this game boosted by a positive midweek result as a 2-0 win away to Bournemouth left Sam Allardyce relieved after a poor start to life at Palace.
You can't argue with the result with the amount of chances we created. They executed the game plan brilliantly today.
If truth be told, Palace did look threatening, managing 11 shots at the Bournemouth goal, with 3 of those finding the target. The cherries certainly had the lion’s share of possession, but much like during the opening months of his Sunderland reign, Allardyce has been focused on securing his team’s leaking defence.
The key today was keeping Bournemouth in front of us. We've let too many people get through us and behind us recently and we had to stop that. I think Bournemouth found that frustrating. It's a great result. It's a first clean sheet, hopefully of many. It's three massive points away from home. I'm so pleased about the 'nil'.
You could argue that Allardyce and Moyes have both come to the same tactical conclusion: utilizing 3 central defenders to shore up the back, whilst wing-backs provide an attacking threat as well as a defensive balance. Old boy Patrick Van Aanholt certainly provided pace and energy to a side that had been lacking options on the overlap on Tuesday night.
Sam was pleased with the progress made, and was quick to put his team on the proverbial pedestal.
The players today looked like what I would expect a team of mine to look like.
Stubborn, organized and clinical? A combination we’re searching for ourselves. We must be wary of Saturday’s game. Allardyce will have his men motivated to find a successive victory - Moyes must similarly life his men and encurage them to get one over their former boss.
Palace’s win against Bournemouth stemmed from their ability to absorb pressure before hitting The Cherries on the counter. It’s taken a while for them to accustom themselves with Allardyce’s demands - 6 games to be exact - but as we’re all well aware, Sam’s methods work. His tactics aren’t pretty, but they enabled Palace to grind out a vital victory - we know what we’re in for.
Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend both looked lively, and it will be critical that Sunderland’s defence - including our wing-backs - stand up to what will most definitely be a test of their defensive capabilities. If we can prevent Palace’s wide-forwards from finding time and space, then we can reduce their ability to find danger man, Christian Benteke. Lamine Kone looked very good on his return to action on Tuesday, we will need him to be every inch as good this weekend against the big Belgian.
Palace have struggled to find a balance in the middle of the park, and Allardyce’s decision to play with three at the back was seen as a move to consolidate his squad’s shape and structure. Whether he will take such a defensive-minded approach at home to the league’s third poorest defence is another matter. Personally, I think Allardyce will stick with his guns, but if he attempts to play a more attacking brand of football Moyes and the squad could certainly utilize that to their advantage.
Sunderland could hand debuts to new boys, Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson (pictured) who joined the club earlier this week for a combined fee believed to be worth around £7.5 million. Should Oviedo replace Javi Manquillo, his first task will be to deal with the threat of Wilfried Zaha. Gibson, you would imagine, won’t be rushed into the starting line-up, but may give us the range of passing required to feed the ever-hungry Jermain Defoe.
Sunderland will almost certainly look to play it safe, and hit Palace on the break. Long balls up to Defoe will not be beneficial though, and must be eradicated from our game. The return of Kone and Ndong was vital to our performance on Tuesday, and they must again look to be as imposing this weekend. Luka Milivojevic could well make his debut for the Eagles on Saturday, and if he features it will be an interesting contest with Ndong to see who controls the middle of the park.
David Moyes must surely keep Fabio Borini consigned to the bench after what has been a series of lamentable performances. His decision to utilize the Italian on Tuesday night rather than the recently impressive George Honeyman was a poor choice, and must certainly be something he’s thinking about changing. Perhaps playing with Honeyman, or Gooch in the number 10 role behind Defoe might create some space in which we can inflict damage on Palace’s creaking defence.
Honeyman, Gooch, Januzaj and Gibson will all be vying to a starting spot, and Moyes must be tactful in his approach to the game. Perhaps introducing Gibson in the latter stages of the game might enable him more time and space in order to pull a few strings, and if we can keep it tight until that point there’s every chance we can come away with a precious win. Fresh legs were needed on Tuesday and Moyes responded with a solitary substitution, surely with a more rounded squad Moyes will be more adventurous in his substitutions?
The return of Kone and Ndong should be followed by the return of fellow ACFON-goer, Wahbi Khazri who could be another member of the squad with the potential of taking Borini’s place, though whether Moyes rates the Tunisian is anyone’s guess.
Pickford, Cattermole and Kirchhoff are all on the road to recovery, and were recently filmed by the club during a recent fitness session.
Anichebe is still out, while Papy Djilibodji will also be missing thanks to his recent 4 game ban.
Predicted XI: Mannone, Oviedo, Kone, O’Shea, Denayer, Jones, Rodwell, Ndong, Larsson, Honeyman, Defoe.
Score Prediction: If the Lads can maintain the same levels of discipline as witnessed on Tuesday night’s game, then there is no reason why we can’t come out of this game with a win. We will need to be patient and frustrate Palace, but if we can find some momentum and our attack can click, Allardyce’s men are up for the taking. I’m going for a 1-0 to us; Gibson will come on in the 72nd minute and find Defoe with a wonderful pass which will be all he’ll need to gift us victory. The start of a march to safety.