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Sunderland v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship

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Who will emerge from the pack for Sunderland between now and the end of the season?

Last year it was Amad and Hume who emerged from the bench to become first team stars at this point of the season - who from the current crop is likely to do the same?

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The 2022/23 season saw a number of players emerge as star players at mid-season Sunderland, and we have plenty of players capable of doing the same this campaign.

Perhaps the best example of this last season was Trai Hume. The Northern Irishman started last season as a backup to Lynden Gooch at right back but ended it as a star man at the back for the Black Cats, even filling in at centre half amidst an injury crisis at the end of the season.

Hume played just 235 minutes for Sunderland in the first half of last season, this included just two starts. However in the last 23 league games of last season, the 21-year-old played the full ninety minutes in all but three of Sunderland’s league matches, making himself a firm fan favourite at the Stadium of Light for his no-nonsense approach to defending.

Despite ending the season as one of the league’s top players, Amad Diallo’s Sunderland career didn’t get off to a flying start. The Manchester United loanee didn’t hit the back of the net in his first eight games in Red and White. Despite this, by May every Sunderland fan had broken the golden rule of ‘never fall in love with a loan player’.

Amad ended the season as Sunderland’s star man, scoring 14 Championship goals as the Black Cats made the play-offs in their first season back in the second tier.

However, there is also space for January signings to make themselves a vital part of the team at Sunderland, as Pierre Ekwah demonstrated last season.

Ekwah endured a shaky start on Wearside after arriving from West Ham last January but soon became an important part of the squad after making his first start in a nil nil draw at high flying Burnley.

Ekwah has since played 25 games this season for Sunderland, even chipping in with four goals and becoming a vital part of the team when he is at the top of his game.

With all that in mind, then — who out of Sunderland’s current crop of players can become key figures before the end of the season?

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Nazariy Rusyn

2023/24 Championship games: 15, Goals: 2, Assists: 1

Nazariy Rusyn endured a slow start at Sunderland after joining from Ukrainian outfit Zorya Luhansk in the summer. The 25-year-old had to wait until January 1st to net his first goal in Red and White, this was also the first goal scored by a Sunderland striker this season.

However, Rusyn now appears to be Michael Beale’s first choice up front after getting his second Sunderland goal late on at Middlesbrough to earn the Black Cats a point.

A criticism of Sunderland this season has been their inability to create clear cut chances for their strikers and instead being overly reliant on Jack Clarke. This is something that Beale is looking to improve on by creating a system that will give his strikers more chances.

The Ukrainian’s main competition up front this season has come from Chelsea loanee Mason Burstow. However with Burstow continuing to struggle and looking off the pace, it is surely Rusyn’s time to play a run of games and claim the first-choice striker role.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Abdoullah Ba

2023/24 Championship Appearances: 28, Goals: 3, Assists: 4

Abdoullah Ba’s Sunderland career has been one that has been blighted by inconsistency since he joined the club in the summer of 2022. This culminated in the 20-year-old being booed by some sections of the Sunderland fans as he was substituted in the three nil home defeat against Coventry in December.

However Ba has had an upturn in form since then, most notably putting in a man of the match performance in the three one win against Stoke earlier this month.

Despite his recent upturn in form, Ba’s inconsistency reared its head against Middlesbrough. Presented with a gilt-edged chance to put Sunderland ahead in the first half, Ba somehow found the only opposition man on the line with the goal at his mercy, allowing Middlesbrough to clear.

Used mostly as a right winger this season, Ba’s main competition for a spot in the Sunderland team is Patrick Roberts. Roberts has had a tough 2023/24 campaign so far, having failed to find the net in 25 Championship games and struggling with a hamstring problem that has seen him have two separate spells on the touchline.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet Championship Photoby Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Chris Rigg

2023/24 Championship Appearances: 8, Goals: 1

At just 16-years-old Chris Rigg is certainly one for the future, but the young midfielder has shown in glimpses what he is capable of for the first team from the bench this season. Rigg has shown promise with encouraging performances as a substitute in recent wins over Stoke and Plymouth, but the highlight of the season for the youngster undoubtedly came against Southampton when Rigg rose to meet Jewison Bennette’s cross and headed home for his first league goal.

Rigg is yet to sign professional terms with Sunderland, and with a number of giants, including the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich, interested in acquiring his services, Sunderland could be well advised to give Rigg more gametime to persuade him to stay at the club.

The exit of Alex Pritchard, who joined Birmingham in January, is also likely to help Rigg gain more playing time.

Pritchard had been Sunderland’s second choice attacking midfielder this season, behind Jobe. However, with Jobe himself being only 18, he will likely need to be rested for some games between now and the end of the season. This could provide Rigg with an opportunity to start his first games in the league for the Black Cats.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Leo Hjelde

2023/24 Championship Appearances: 2

A man that will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Ekwah is Leo Hjlede, who joined Sunderland from Leeds in January.

Hjelde has slotted straight into the Sunderland side at left back since joining, looking accomplished in both of his appearances to date.

Left back has become something of a problem area for Sunderland recently, with both Dennis Cirkin and Aji Alese struggling to stay fit for any length of time. Before Hjelde arrived, Beale combatted this by playing Hume and left back and bringing Jenson Seelt into the side at right back. However, with no natural left footer in defence, this led to an imbalance in the side.

As well as being solid defensively, Hjelde has also shown a willingness to get forward in his two games so far. An overlapping player on the left flank will make it more difficult for teams to ‘double up’ on Jack Clarke, giving Sunderland’s star man more space to work his magic.


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