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Barnesy’s Blog: There’s a lot riding on Sunderland’s upcoming games; do they have what it takes?

“With the improved fitness levels and the lack of Trophy involvement (which may yet hamper Portsmouth) I don’t expect to see Sunderland fall away as they did last season” writes BBC Newcastle’s Nick Barnes.

Danny Roberts

I write ahead of Sunderland’s match at home to Ipswich Town, a match which from the start of the season was always going to be a big one but which now with both teams slipping to disappointing defeats against Peterborough and Portsmouth has become much much bigger.

Leading up to the match at Fratton Park I was fairly optimistic about Sunderland’s chances and for nearly half an hour I remained so. Christian Burgess’s opener and James Bolton’s second disabused me of the notion as Sunderland disappeared in the second half.

So where does this leave them in the wider picture this season? I remain fairly positive. I still think Sunderland will be in the mix, but will that mix be the topping or the filling? To my mind Rotherham United are staking a good claim for the title and on the evidence of what we saw at Fratton park, Portsmouth won’t be far behind.

Sunderland I am sure suffered from their match at Tranmere Rovers and I suspect with hindsight Phil Parkinson will have been thinking he should have freshened the team up. There isn’t much margin for error now and with matches against Oxford, Fleetwood and Coventry coming up in the next three weeks, not to exclude Rochdale of course, then Sunderland need to be punching again as they were in those matches against Wycombe and Lincoln.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

There was much written and talked about Sunderland lacking an identity and a plan under Jack Ross, and in the early weeks the same was said of Phil Parkinson. The turnaround has without doubt been marked and I would argue the team now does play to a blueprint and that in itself gives it an identity.

The players know their roles and now the transfer window is over there are players who will seemingly slip into the team with ease.

George Dobson for instance is inevitably going to pick up that tenth yellow card. Josh Scowen should slide into his position with alacrity. Kyle Lafferty has shown he’s an able replacement for Charlie Wyke and Bailey Wright has already, and perhaps arguably unfairly, displaced AlimOzturk. Declan John waits in the wings and we’ve seen Antoine Semenyo, but the jury is out until we see him in a more positive environment than that he faced coming into a beaten team at Portsmouth.

By the beginning of March I think we’ll have a clearer idea of whether Sunderland will be in the play-offs or serious automatic contenders. To be the latter, the likes of Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch have to step up to the plate again as without question it was that pair who initiated the start of the turnaround after Christmas.

Allied with the defence looking for the first time in nearly eighteen months like a defence, and Jon McLaughlin recovering his form, then the platform is there for Sunderland to take the League by the scruff of the neck and imprint their mark on it as everyone had hoped they would last season.

With the improved fitness levels and the lack of Trophy involvement (which may yet hamper Portsmouth) I don’t expect to see Sunderland fall away as they did last season. I remain hopelessly optimistic, and now writing this I only hope Ipswich Town don’t plough through my aspirations.

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