It’s fair to say there have been a number of highs and a few lows on Wearside over the festive period.
Defeat at leaders Portsmouth brought an element of injustice, as Glenn Loovens was harshly shown a red card. The penalty award was a fair assessment of the coming together of the players, but when Peter Bankes also sent Loovens off, it handed the advantage to the home side. A goal up and playing ten-men, the league leaders were never going to lose.
Over 46,000 then witnessed Sunderland bounce back against Bradford, with our own slice of luck. The officials failed to spot a Bradford shot creeping over the line and the first of our double-header home game secured all three points. Unfortunately, the performance was not so good and that form carried on into the Shrewsbury game. A 1-1 draw, after being behind, may seem a reasonable point, but if Sunderland are to achieve promotion these draws have to be turned into wins, especially at home.
Four points and a clean sheet from three games may not be the end of the world, but Sunderland remain four points behind Luton and seven adrift of Portsmouth. More importantly, Ross’ side have looked sluggish and quickly need to find their rhythm once more if they are to close the gap. Having two games in hand will help, but with eight draws now registered - five coming at home - maximum points cannot be guaranteed.
One of those fixtures, our re-arranged home game with Blackpool, takes place on February 12th. Today an estimated 8,000 fans will make the journey across the country to face The Tangerines on their home patch.
The Gaffer says...
[Saturday] surprised me. The group had looked really bright since Wednesday and in the warm-up. Sometimes things might concern you, but the boxes were all ticked. We weren’t at the level needed to be to win the game.
We should have been better than we were. We were slow, sloppy and laboured and although we still dominated territory, we conceded a poor goal.
We are still unbeaten at home, which in itself is quite remarkable. Points total wise we have still given ourselves a chance. There is a lot of football to be played still.
What I would say is a fair point is that we can’t replicate the number of draws over the remaining home games because then we would be in danger of dropping below the points we need. That is something that we are aware of.
The state of play...
As has been mentioned, Sunderland remain adrift of the automatic promotion places with two wins recorded from the four league fixtures played in December.
However, our opponents today won only once in their last five league games. That was a 2-1 home win over Charlton on December 8th. Since then they have lost twice and drawn once on their travels, whilst losing to Barnsley at home just before Christmas.
Sunderland fans have found the form of our opponents is no real guide as to what we can expect as most teams have raised their game when playing us. For Blackpool, though, problems run much deeper than league form.
The on-going campaign against the club’s owners has seen many Blackpool fans forced to boycott their own club. Mismanagement, that makes Newcastle fans’ gripes and shop-screaming antics seem like a childish tantrum, are on a completely unprecedented level. The levels of mistrust run so deep that fans see only a change in ownership as a resolution.
Eleven managers in the last six years also tells its own story. Blackpool’s fall from the Premier League has been even more catastrophic and painful than our own. Yet Terry McPhillips has done a good job in getting the Tangerines to eighth in the league.
McPhillips began the season as assistant manager to Gary Bowyer at Bloomfield Road, but stepped up to the manager’s role in September. Like Sunderland, a positive result today will do little for their current position but could help close the gap to the teams above them.
Bryan Oviedo was withdrawn early in the second half and Ross has confirmed the Costa Rican is struggling with a lower back impact injury. Given the congested fixture list, it is doubtful whether Oviedo will be risked, especially with regular left-back Reece James available.
Defence remains a problem area as far as injuries go. Full-backs Adam Matthews, Denver Hume and Donald Love are all still recovering from knocks, whilst Glenn Loovens remains out following the injury sustained at Fratton Park. Luke O’Nien has made a strong impression at right back, whilst Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin continue to operate as Sunderland’s first choice central pairing. Reinforcements may be needed as the January transfer window opens if Sunderland are to maintain their promotion push in 2019.
Jack Ross’ style of play is to have Sunderland on the offensive as quickly as possible and having an attacking trio of Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady certainly accomplishes this aim. However, this style puts pressure on the central defensive pair when possession is lost. Recently, Lee Cattermole and Max Power have seen their form dip and Ross could be ready to freshen up the personnel.
Dylan McGeough and Bali Mumba are the obvious choices, although whether both would be thrown in is debatable. The likelihood is Dylan McGeough, Sunderland’s closest thing to a marquee signing in the summer, would start alongside either Cattermole or Power. Perhaps Power has shown more in recent games to warrant his inclusion today.
Further upfield, the presence of captain George Honeyman has been missing. Whether this is the skipper playing in the midst of the attacking trio or making runs from a deeper role, Sunderland have missed him in the last couple of games. Jack Ross has spoken of how they are managing Honeyman’s ankle injury and it may be the case he can play a part today. If so, then he could be one of perhaps two changes in this vital area.
Lynden Gooch failed to spark on Saturday, but the American has had a long run of games and perhaps needs a break. Chris Maguire was taken out earlier in the month and spent a couple of games on the bench. Arguably that could benefit Gooch. Duncan Watmore is timing his comeback to the point that he would offer a straight replacement. Having Watmore driving from the right, Aiden McGeady from the left and Honeyman in a central position may allow Ross to tinker to good effect.
Up front, Sunderland now have geniune competition. Jerome Sinclair has failed to show a positive goals return this season, but with Charlie Wyke now available, Josh Maja has a challenge for the central striking role. With contract negotiations coming to a head, big decisions will have to be made in January. Today will be an interesting team selection for Ross, perhaps none moreso than up front.
The view from the Home dressing room...
[Saturday] was a clean sheet away from home, so we’ll take the point and dust ourselves down.
It was a clean sheet, which is a positive, but if we want to win games we need to start scoring goals, so it’s just that bit of extra quality that we lacked.
We’re really at the bare bones with the squad, with those injured, suspended and not available for other reasons.
It’ll be noisy in there, so there will be some atmosphere. It’s going to be lively but it’s going to be good to have a really good atmosphere in there.
Obviously it’s an advantage for them but I think it will inspire our players to do even better.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Around 8,000 tickets have been sold as Sunderland have once-more sold out an away fixture.
For those unable to attend, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
The game is also available via the Match Pass stream for domestic and international supporters. Full details can be found on SAFC.com.
We’ll also be providing live commentary via our Twitter page and, after the game, there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.