Since we signed off for the most recent international break with a victory over Birmingham City in what was a thoroughly bizarre game to watch, the picture has been mixed as various members of our squad travelled far and wide to represent their countries.
Nectar Triantis was red carded for Australia’s ‘Olyroos’ against Saudi Arabia, Dan Ballard’s mysterious international duty-induced injury concerns reared their head again, and Chris Rigg’s Indonesian adventure with England U17’s was cut short as the Three Lions were shocked by Uzbekistan, despite the young attacker registering an assist in that game.
Closer to home, and away from two thoroughly underwhelming performances and results for England’s senior team, the biggest piece of welcome news was that of Patrick Roberts’ contract extension.
This rewarded one of the club’s most talented footballers with a new deal, offered further proof of the hierarchy’s desire to retain key players, and eased any lingering nerves about the former Celtic winger departing Wearside during the January transfer window.
Indeed, with a new contract in his back pocket and the full backing of Tony Mowbray and his coaching staff, it would be no surprise to see Roberts embark on a blistering run of form which could help to bring the best out of our strikers and might also motivate Abdoullah Ba to continue his own impressive rate of improvement.
Fortunately, with no more international breaks scheduled until March, all focus can now be channelled back onto Sunderland’s domestic campaign, which resumes with the long trip to Home Park and a clash with Plymouth Argyle this weekend.
With a midweek home fixture against Huddersfield to follow and a trip to Millwall after that, this triple header feels like an excellent chance for the Lads to generate some real momentum ahead of a tricky-looking game against West Bromwich Albion and a mouthwatering home tie with Leeds United.
So, as we restart our Championship campaign after what felt like far longer than a two-week pause, how are we shaping up?
Ballard and Dennis Cirkin’s fitness concerns aside (Jenson Seelt and Luke O’Nien would be a perfectly solid and reliable central defensive pairing against the Pilgrims tomorrow), Mowbray has plenty to ponder, and much of it is positive.
Could the classy Adil Aouchiche force his way into the starting eleven with more exciting performances over the coming weeks, or perhaps even sooner than that?
Can Nazariy Rusyn, fresh from some lively recent displays, break his goal duck and continue to lead the line in combative fashion?
Will Eliezer Mayenda build on a very promising cameo against the Blues and offer hope that the summer arrival from Sochaux can be the kind of powerful and dynamic attacker we need, as Hemir continues to search for form and confidence?
Rarely in recent times have we been able to call on such a wealth of superb attacking talent, and with the depth to rotate his squad without a huge drop in quality, that’ll be a godsend for Mowbray as he guides us through one of the most demanding periods of any season.
Perhaps the attitude within the squad was best typified by a recent video posted by Pierre Ekwah, in which the popular midfielder was filmed training in France during the international break.
In the clip, Ekwah’s focus and drive to improve were obvious and although he always goes about his business with a smile, Mowbray clearly feels there’s a real warrior of a midfielder there, the kind of player who, if he wants to, could become one of the most influential players in the league.
As he gradually gets back to his best after an unsurprisingly rusty display against Birmingham, the red and white engine room, fuelled by the Ekwah and Dan Neil partnership, will be generating some serious horsepower.
Knocks, niggles, strains and the occasional frustrating one-game ban are seemingly a way of life at Sunderland nowadays, but as Seelt and Triantis demonstrated against Birmingham two weeks ago, there’s always someone capable of stepping into the breach if needed.
That’s sure to be tested to the maximum over the next month or so, but tomorrow is a great chance to get back down to business with a win.
Our trip to Devon during the 2021/2022 season was slightly frustrating as we only took a point out of a game that certainly felt winnable, but this time will hopefully be different, and the Lads can reward the travelling red and white army with three points.