For Alex Neil and his players, Saturday represents the toughest challenge of the season so far, as Norwich City travel to the Stadium of Light.
The Canaries make the trip to Wearside in the midst of an upturn in form, and will face their former manager in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Our start to the season has been nothing short of marvellous, but there’s no doubt that this game will provide a truer indication of exactly where we are.
After a fairly sluggish start, meanwhile, Norwich managed to calm any nerves last week, with consecutive home wins over Huddersfield and Millwall, and they head to the North East in search of their first away victory of the campaign.
At the moment, Sunderland are a formidable opponent for any team.
In front of our home crowd, we press with vigour, we move the ball well, and we always show a great deal of character. That’s all going to be put to the test when Dean Smith’s side arrive this weekend.
There is no doubt that both teams have genuine quality in all areas, and the deciding factor may come in the shape of each side’s attacking options.
Smith may well opt for a single striker, likely to be the in-form USA international Josh Sargent, over club stalwart Teemu Pukki.
In Sargent, Norwich possibly have one of the best centre forwards in the division (behind Ross Stewart, of course), and Friday night’s 2-0 victory over Millwall showcased the American’s ability, as he held the ball up well, pressed with determination, and finished with style.
At the moment, Sargent is keeping Pukki out of the picture at Carrow Road, but the Finnish striker adds even more quality to their bench, alongside the likes of Todd Cantwell, Milot Rashica, Jordan Hugill, and Adam Idah.
Norwich have class and depth all across the park, and nowhere more so than in midfield.
Like Sunderland, the Canaries seem to enjoy counter attacking with pace, and with Marcelino Núñez and Kieran Dowell forming a promising partnership, the Black Cats must keep them quiet.
Within the starting eleven, Smith seems to be opting for a mixture of youth and experience, and he can also call upon a stable back four.
Grant Hanley and Andrew Omobamidele have played alongside each other in Norwich’s opening four league matches, and are set to do so again at the Stadium of Light.
Right-back Max Aarons was the subject of rumoured Premier League interest over the summer, but is still in yellow and green for now. He and Danel Sinani will aim to present Jack Clarke and Dennis Cirkin with one of their toughest tasks of the season.
In truth, the game may be decided on the tactical battle between the two managers,
Dean Smith and Alex Neil are seasoned Championship coaches, and both favour somewhat similar styles of football. If we are on our game, however, we can certainly challenge for the victory, but we will need to be switched on for the full ninety minutes.
With the threats of Ellis Simms and Ross Stewart up against an ageing Hanley, Sunderland should seek to exploit the pace advantage and force Hanley into a foot race early on.
In midfield, a fully-fit Corry Evans will be a key player this weekend, because we all saw the difference he made when he came on at half time against Stoke.
Evans controlled the game, showed composure, and managed to prevent any threats from the Potters. Up against the quality and creativity of Núñez and Dowell, however, he’s going to be needed more than ever.
Despite the quality of Norwich’s team, I don’t see any reason we can’t hurt them ourselves. It’s going to be tight and nervy at times, but a quick start in front of another buoyant home crowd could really set the tone.
It will be Sunderland’s trickiest test so far, but as we’ve already seen this season, Alex Neil’s side don’t fear anyone in the Championship.