It’s probably fair to say that the midweek draw away to Scunthorpe was a bit of a let down. Neither team really looked up to much, and Sunderland seemingly treated the game as a chance to give several players a run out ahead of the coming campaign - which, after all, is exactly what Grayson said he would be doing for the majority of the summer’s friendlies - a point the Black Cats boss reiterated again this week:
Everybody thinks that you play a certain team in the week before the season starts, and that is going to be your starting team. However that might not be the case.
Some players might need the minutes, some people are injured, but the important thing is that they are all ready for the most important game against Derby at the end of next week.
Today’s game, however, will almost certainly be treated with a greater sense of importance as the Lads take on Scottish champions, Celtic. Brendan Rodgers’ side were unstoppable north of the border last season as they ran away with the Scottish title, and Grayson will be keen to see how his men respond to what is arguably their biggest test of the summer thus far.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see something resembling a full-strength side line up to face our Glaswegian opponents as Grayson finalises his approach ahead of the season opener at home to Derby this following Friday. That’s not to say the line-up will be a mirror image the following week, but Grayson will know that a win could send the Lads into the new season with a tangible sense of optimism, and will be keen to put a strong team out to face the opponents.
One player hoping to make his debut will be new signing, Lewis Grabban. Signed on a year-long loan deal from Bournemouth, Grayson is hopeful that he can get the former Cherries striker firing this season:
He's experienced and knows the division. He could have stayed at Bournemouth but swapped places from one end of the country to the other. That shows a real willingness and attitude to get back playing.
His experience will be vital because we're quite a young group at the top of the pitch. He's got goals in him too and that's why we've signed him.
Grayson has acknowledged that further attacking reinforcements are needed though, and has admitted this to the media in recent days:
We’ve spoken to several clubs, several agents, and it’s about getting the right deal for any of the targets we have got.
We’re talking to some clubs about players who haven’t even been mentioned [publicly] yet - hopefully one day we can get a deal through that nobody actually knows about!
Ultimately, though, the boss did concede that the club are still in a position in which they will be under pressure to sell players:
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we are still a bit short in certain areas of the pitch, and of course we are still vulnerable to players leaving.
With media rumours suggesting Besiktas have had an offer for Jeremain Lens rejected as well as continuous speculation surrounding the futures of Khazri, Kone and several other players, Grayson will have his work cut out for him in assembling a side capable of fighting for promotion this season - an aim we should be pushing for.
It’ll be interesting to see how Grayson approaches the game tactically. Celtic are a dangerous side who play with real attacking intent, and Sunderland’s defence will need to be on top form in order to keep the Bhoys’ strikers at bay.
In midfield, fans will be savouring the potential clash between hard-men Lee Cattermole and Scott Brown both of whom will be keen to assert their dominance early on. However, Dider Ndong will perhaps be the key to Sunderland’s approach as his energy and determination will be essential to the Black Cats efforts at controlling the game.
Up front, Grayson has employed something resembling a fluid front-four at times - with two central strikers supported by wide men keen on getting forward whenever possible. Josh Maja has really impressed as the most advanced striker, and will be desperate to play should he have recovered from the knock he sustained during last weekend’s trip to Bradford. Grabban will also be keen to get some gametime with his new teammates, and Sunderland’s new no 9, James Vaughan, will be desperate to find the back of the net and relieve some pressure on him heading into the season proper.
Aiden McGeady and Adam Matthews will also be eager to impress against their former employer’s in an effort at guaranteeing a crack at first-team football in the coming weeks.
Robbin Ruiter could play some part in today’s match after another great game midweek, although media reports suggest Burnley are also interested in the Dutch stopper. Jason Steele will definitely be given some time between the sticks and will be desperate to secure the keeper’s shirt for himself - hopefully the lad from County Durham can impress.
Jeremain Lens has been rumoured to be the subject of a bid from Besiktas, so time will tell if he remains on Wearside - but he could feature today.
Bryan Oviedo, Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair remain longer-term absentees and won’t play any part this afternoon, but the rest of the squad will be keen to shine in an effort at securing a place ahead of next Friday’s opening Championship fixture.
SAFC’s Starting XI: Steele, Galloway, Kone, Browning, Matthews, Ndong, Cattermole, McGeady, Lens, Khazri, Grabban.
Score: If Sunderland can get the likes of McGeady, Lens and Khazri playing to their true potential then most teams will struggle to combat their creative talents. This could be the key to success against not just Celtic, but most teams in the Championship this season, and fans will be eager for the aforementioned players to impress this weekend. I think our defence still needs work, and Celtic will exploit that - so I’m going for a 2-2 draw with McGeady grabbing the equaliser.